I shall begin the literary sojourn of my blog with the first part of the long review of an old French love story.
It’s called Manon Lescaut. It’s written by the French author, the Abbe Prevost. It’s first published in 1731. It is considered a masterpiece in the French tradition. But fundamentally, the general public probably doesn’t know much about it. It is the quintessential story of the couple. It is a fiction about relationship and it is about the fiction of relationship. What an easy phrase that is, the story of the couple. Does the couple have a story? Can there be the story of a couple? What would it be, to put it more sharply, whose would it be? And so, this intense, I think quite beautiful, enigmatic, little novel, about the couple, is going to be bursting, it seems to me, with issues, questions, concerns about the theme we’re going to be wrestling with. And a theme, most of us, if we don’t wrestle with it, we live with it in our lives.
It is certainly about relationship as most of us initially in a knee-jerk way, think of it, which is a relationship that’s an emotional, erotic relationship between two people. However, it is essentially the voice of the lover, of one person, of the male figure and I can scarcely overstate the significance of all of those issues. The voice of one person, the voice of the lover, the voice of the male. That are not narrowly literary questions. They’re not theoretical questions. They’re questions that are hardwired to the very notion, reality, and threats of human relationship.
Notions of Literature and the Formula.
By doing that I’m going to be trying to get across one of the basic notions, which is that literature itself, particularly narrative literature, the novel, brings to visibility things in our own lives that we’re not equipped to see. That’s a huge claim. So, let me backtrack now and talk more about the, the, this novel itself. This book is published in 1731. Hence many of the things that may look
self-evident and even normative in this book, which is a kind of apology for human love, and for passion, and I mean an apology in the strict sense, arguing for, that all of this is something that is much more counter-cultural, much more problematic in this novel and at that time. So, one text that is familiar to all of us , that could be thought of as a kind of benchmark text, would be Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, which we think of as one of our great stories of young lovers. Shakespeare’s play is famously thought of as star-crossed lovers. And their problems have to do with a family feud. On the other hand, what we have in this little novel is a story of class-crossed lovers.
That a young aristocrat or a young man of noble background, at least, high bourgeois background, falls in love with a young beautiful girl who really comes from the common people. And, that has a set of fireworks and issues and problems altogether of its own. But here’s the second less obvious, contrast with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s text is play, which means that in Shakespeare’s text we get the viewpoint of Romeo, of Juliet, and of all the other characters in that play. Theater gives us a kind of vision of life in the round. Each figure has his or her own language, own viewpoint. We take that for granted. That is not the case in fiction. And it’s certainly not the case in this little fiction. There would, be a kind of formula for what I think is happening in this novel, which is, it’s the story of, and here’s my claim, the problematic hero in a degraded world. This claim, has all of the sort of stacked deck reality of hindsight.
Again, Prevost could scarcely have had that in mind as his goal. But that is how we, centuries later perhaps, read this book. Problematic hero. That is to say, a hero who is full of problems, not necessarily for himself. We’ll see that this hero, this protagonist, des Grieux, is enormously pleased with himself. And yet, most readers, either choke on him or have trouble with him. And his own family member, his own father dies. So, this is a character where the reader has a different stance on this figure than the figure himself has. These are some of the things that literature brings to the table. Is that we can read a character and sense that our assessment and judgment of this character is quite different from his or her own.
I’m going to show that Paris in 1715 –because, in fact, is as a degraded world. Probably, every moment of history offers us a picture of society that shows some degradation, some corruption, some fault lines. I don’t know that he had that kind of critical objective at all. I don’t think that that was his target and yet that is what we see. We see that this is a world that is some, 50 years almost, before the French Revolution. And yet it’s a depiction of a set of class structures, of a particular ancien regime, old regime world that is slated for some convulsive moments that we, that we call the French revolution. So, we read this book in a sense, with a critical eye about the makeup and self-assumptions of the protagonist, the problematic hero, but also, of the culture of the setting and the stage on which this protagonist or this couple carries out their affairs, the degraded world.
And then we ask the really vexing question, what would be the connection between the problematic hero and the degraded world? That’s what makes for all of the bubbling, bristling interest of literature that it begins to speak of all of these matters. So, it’s the story of the couple. As I said, this young man who was well born, falls madly, faithfully in love with this young girl Manon Lescaut. And the plot of this novel could not be simpler. It is their plot, which is to keep their relationship intact, which is to be able to stay together. It’s the fundamental requirement of a couple. At least it used to be. That they will stay together against all odds. And there are many odds that they have to work against. Because, as this plot shows us over and over, they are constantly being separated By what? Sometimes by the forces of the family, his family. Sometimes by the forces of authority, of the culture at large. And so the plot is about them getting back together.
We who read this text realize that money plays a central role in whether or not this couple can maintain their alliance. We will want to examine that as we go. That the great philosopher of the enlightenment, Montesquieu, who is one of the first great philosophers of history, said that this was the arrival in French literature of what he called <i>un fripon et une catin</i> and that means “a scoundrel and a strumpet.” And he wasn’t very happy about that, that this text he thought brought the, sort of, dregs of society, and also sort of rather embarrassing behavior into narrative literature. The novel itself, you should understand, is a much vexed genre in the eighteenth century, it has none of the seriousness and prestige that today we ascribe to it. And so, the genre itself was a little bit dicey, and these characters and this plot didn’t seem to have much dignity. So, all of that says something about the way this story was read then. It was popular. It has become the story of a kind of, immortal love affair. It has become a, kind of, story of tragic love. Puccini made a famous opera about it later. And yet, we will want to examine all of the issues and questions in it, about the nature of love, the nature of couple, the obstacles that are against the couple, against relationship, both then and perhaps now, whether they are material or whether they are also more hardwired, that is to say, perceptual and affective also.
Ethos of Love.
So, why do we call a text, a literary text, an immortal love story? It’s got to be in part because the language of that story – whether it’s
Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet – the language is somehow, not only commensurate with the splendor of young love, but it creates an awareness in us: yes, this is what love means. This is the excitement of human passion, this is what our hearts are about, our bodies are about, and our minds are taken over by this as well. And I believe that when we think about the novel in the eighteenth century,that’s part, I think, of the story of how it becomes an important genre, how it gets accepted, why people read novels. It is a good question, why do people read novels? It is an even better question, do people read novels? haha
But certainly one reason for reading novels is that it gives us, as it were, an inside picture of the way people think and feel. But readers flock to text like this,because they seem to have a kind of immediacy that they put onto the page, The actual roiling feelings of the human heart. In a way that was not the case in literature earlier than this. The eighteenth century is, the age of the heart, the age of human sensibility, of emotions. And all of that is very much, it seems to me, at play and at issue in this story. That this novel we can look at historically, I do, and we can see that it’s a novel about crisis, it’s a novel about generational warfare. Actually reminds me a little bit of the 1960’s in both America and in Europe, where you had a kind of edible conflict between the young and their elders. This book lines up, according to that same type of binary, it seems to me. And we see that it’s studded with images of imprisonment, of what happens to the people who challenge the existing mainstream order. That people are thrown into prison, literally; that both Manon and des Grieux end up being incarcerated, and the family itself can be figured as a form of incarceration when des Grieux is essentially abducted by his father after this affair with Manon begins and brought back forcibly home. But you won’t understand any of that unless you sort of feel like – this is back to immortal love story – that you know why these people are together as they are.
Des Grieux, who is the protagonist, is slated for a career in the church for an ecclesiastical career. He is the second son in the family, which means he will inherit, but he won’t inherit the lion’s share of the family assets. And he knows that, and so therefore, as was often the case, slated for the church. And it’s in that situation where he is en route, more or less, to his, sort of, religious, continuing his religious studies, that he comes upon Manon Lescaut and sees her for the first time. And I want you to hear what this sounds like when this young boy sees this young girl. He’s maybe 18, she’s maybe 15, and he speaks to her and they’re infatuated with each other. Once they get close to each other, physically close to each other, intimacy becomes possible. We read something like this, “In a very short time I realized, I was not nearly as callow as I thought. “I was less of a child than I thought. I had all sorts of pleasurable sensations, the like of which I’d never dreamed of before. A kind of ineffable warmth, a kind of soft heat.” And I experienced such overpowering emotion – “The French says “transport”, -transport, which to an English ear sounds like a train or something, but it gets across the kind of vehemence and also the actual kinetic power of human feeling – it can take you somewhere else. “I experienced such an overpowering emotion that for some time I could not utter a sound. But let my passion, only let my passion declare itself through my eyes.” And we’re meant to understand that this is a sensual, sexual education. That this is something he, des Grieux tells us that in part in meeting Manon Lescaut he scarcely knew the difference between boys and girls.
Well he’s learning it quick. And the two of them are like glued to each other. And he knows early on that this is fate, that this matters.
And it matters to me too, because I think it’s an almost incredible story today. It’s not clear in the 21st century that any young couple would have this kind, they might have the same passionate encounter, but whether they would construe this as fate, and to see this as the markers of their life is less certain today. It’s not clear that we can still read text, such as Romeo and Juliet or Manon Lescaut. Des Grieux is convinced that this is what is best in him. This, too, is easy for us to agree to today, but this seemed quite shocking in 1731. He says, “L’amour et de passion la innocent”, love is an innocent passion. Well if you look at the great literature of earlier periods, often love is not an innocent passion. Love even, as far back as Greek tragedy, love is something that smites you, something that is almost akin to a disease,something that robs you of your self control and of your dignity. That’s not the way it is construed or at least depicted in this novel, that this is what goes deepest in him, cuts deepest in him, this is how he finds who he is, this is his soul. These are all the reasons we can call it pre-Romantic. Well, what is fascinating is because these are class crossed lovers, because this young man, coming as he does, from a good family, nonetheless, has no money to speak of, because Manon, when he meets her, has been sent fundamentally, to a convent, with a very small amount of money herself, then it turns out that they have no funds that they can’t live out the lover’s dream, very easily at least, which is what they attempt to do. And that’s going to be the enduring problem of their relationship do they have funds, can they get funds. in order to stay together as a couple? He, by the way, given his social rank, cannot simply go out and get a job – that’s just not in the cards. So what can he do to get money in order, not so much to keep this woman, but to keep themselves? Well, we will watch him, in short order, become a liar, a sponger, a professional card sharper, and even a murderer. In other words he goes right off a cliff, that there’s a kind of societal descent into hell in this story and I think he knows it early on. He senses that this is going to really be life altering when he separated from Manon earlier because he’s abducted by his father’s servants. And he thinks once again staying at home, sort of imprisoned at home, that he will perhaps seek a career in the church,and he goes and he meets her. She surprises him by being there and he realizes that once again, this is his fate. And he says, “I am going to throw away my career and good name for you. Yes, I know I am. I can read it in your eyes. But what sacrifices will not be fully repaid by your love?” And the same sort of language is heard throughout the novel, that he does not repent, he does not feel that he has made a mistake. At one point he is getting ready to undertake some particularly risky gesture, action, that it perhaps is going to cost him his life, it may have to do with murdering somebody, and then he says, “But what has my blood got to do with it? What matters is Manon’s life and how to keep her alive. All that matters is her love, her loyalty. Have I anything worthy to be weighed in the balance against her?”This is what a love ethos sounds like: “Have I anything in the balance to be weighed against her? ”
For me, she is -” and here comes the list of things that would have mattered earlier, would have trumped love, “For me she is glory, happiness, and fortune. So, it’s almost existential. She replaces all of the traditional values,all of the traditional horizons of a young man with his future in front of him. This is love as an ethos. This character, flawed though he is, is to become a love apostle. And what is intriguing about the book is that no one wants to hear these tidings. That this doctrine of love, and it is really close to a doctrine at times where she replaces God, she replaces glory, she replaces, because after all he was destined for the church, she replaces everything else. This is what is new about this book.
And so, it does lead us to the question about how love calls into question the assumptions, values of society. But I’d rather say how a love story calls these values into questions,and that’s what helps to us look at this book as a kind of thick text, as a text, in the ethological sense, that it’s written in a way that we see what is overt and we say what is covert, that we see the fault lines of his society in a way that it’s not even clear he intended, but he felt it. And that’s what makes it’s way into these novels, into this story in particular. That we understand the way in which feeling gangs up other values and that this novel, which became famous because it was such a powerful tribute, a powerful representation of human feeling, is in fact a troubling book that it doesn’t quite preach insurrection.
But it shows you that human love is a wayward experience, it could be a tragic experience. It could be the end of any sort of shot for dignity or control or success. It also says something about the economy of art, that I don’t think that history or sociology tells us these things, that in this novel, which is going to give us a deep reading of this character, what he says but what he feels also, we’re going to get a sense of the complexity of human drive,the complexity of what makes relationship not just desirable but in some sense irresistible in this book, because of the way it’s written, because of the impetuousness and the authority of what this man feels.