How Moliere Is Saving France

Friday

Few writers are able to apply literary lessons to contemporary politics as well as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. In a very smart article, he says that French president Emmanuel Macron is drawing upon Moliere to chart a wise course for France. Gopnik observes that the 17th century writer’s social comedy provides Macron a model for walking the fine line between idealism and pragmatism.

According to Gopnik, Macron is a Moliere fanatic. In a televised interview last Sunday, he

engaged in an exchange of the proto-romantic Alceste’s opening lines from The Misanthrope with a journalist, who took up the accompanying role of Philinte, Alceste’s best friend, who represents simple common sense.

Once can see why Macron would relate to the play. Alceste, after all, is objecting to customary political behavior:

PHILINTE
Am I so very wicked, do you think?

ALCESTE
Go to, you ought to die for very shame!
Such conduct can have no excuse; it must
Arouse abhorrence in all men of honor.
I see you load a man with your caresses,
Profess for him the utmost tenderness,
And overcharge the zeal of your embracings
With protestations, promises, and oaths;
And when I come to ask you who he is
You hardly can remember even his name!
Your ardour cools the moment he is gone,
And you inform me you care nothing for him!
Good God! ’tis shameful, abject, infamous,
So basely to play traitor to your soul;
And if, by evil chance, I’d done as much,
I should go straight and hang myself for spite.

PHILINTE
It doesn’t seem to me a hanging matter,
And I’ll petition for your gracious leave
A little to commute your rigorous sentence,
And not go hang myself for that, an’t please you.

ALCESTE
How unbecoming is your pleasantry!

PHILINTE
But seriously, what would you have me do?

ALCESTE
Be genuine; and like a man of honour
Let no word pass unless it’s from the heart.

PHILINTE
But when a man salutes you joyfully,
You have to pay him back in his own coin,
Make what response you can to his politeness,
And render pledge for pledge, and oath for oath.

In the interview, Gopnik said, Macron spoke in Alceste’s voice but with Philinte’s views. Here’s Philinte’s defense:

There’s many a time and place when utter frankness
Would be ridiculous, or even worse;
And sometimes, no offence to your high honour,
‘Tis well to hide the feelings in our hearts.
Would it be proper, decent, in good taste,
To tell a thousand people your opinion
About themselves? When you detest a man,
Must you declare it to him, to his face?

Rousseau, it’s worth noting, hated Moliere for (as he saw it) making fun of Alceste. That’s because Rousseau was an earnest idealist who identified with the misanthrope. Macron, by contrast, is a centrist politician who united the center left and the center right against Marine Le Pen’s fascism. Politically speaking, he has to join a high-minded idealism (Alceste) with a down-to-earth pragmatism (Philinte). Macron’s knowledge of Moliere, Gopnik says, helps him see his challenge clearly.

The problem is this: pragmatism is not very inspiring, and middle-of-the road moderates are often targets of derision. Social comedy, however, is suspicious of ideological purism of any kind and thus gives moderates more credibility. By invoking Moliere, Gopnik says, Macron

was cautioning against dogmatic answers to practical problems. He was, in short, speaking on behalf of Molière’s great theme: the folly of fanaticism of every kind, whether it be the religious fanaticism in Tartuffe, in which a self-seeking pseudo-holy man warps a family’s life, or the social fanaticism in The Misanthrope, in which the proudly plainspoken Alceste has to be instructed by his mistress and his friends that too much candor is egocentric and vain, and not admirable. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière makes fun of the aspirational fanaticism of the moneyed middle-class man who discovers, thanks to an expensive tutor, that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, and in The Imaginary Invalid he makes fun of the hypochondriac’s desperate desire to be cured by some systematic, if entirely fake, doctoring. In The Learned Ladies, Molière’s proto-feminist point is not that the ladies should not be learned but that their natural wit—all that they know already from their own experience—is more profound than what their lecherous tutors, with their extravagant poetic pretensions, wish to teach them.

Social comedy has a social policy wisdom that more elevated genres, such as epic, tragedy, and lyric poetry, lack. This makes Moliere the perfect model for Macron:

That French lesson—about the madness of finding a one-size-fits-all solution to a many-shaped and many-sized humanity—though delightfully convincing when presented as social comedy, is hard to make glow as social policy. So, on Sunday night, Macron was in the strange and contradictory position—one that made his performance on the whole as disconcerting as it was effective—of trying to stare down fanaticism fanatically. He held that the leftist belief in a kind of organized social revenge against the wealthy élite is just as destructive as the right-wing nationalist belief in an orgy of revenge against the educated élite. He spoke for the fierce urgency of not always being too urgent, for the glamour of moderation, for the eloquence of small-bore social engineering.

Macron sounds a lot like the left-of-center Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom disappointed the left, and Gopnik admits that comedy can appear to give short shrift to our emotional hunger. Obamaesque calls for Hope and Change, after all, sound more epic or lyrical than comic. What comedy can do, however, is “make[ ] sanity look appealing and alive to our dramatic imagination.” Gopnik concludes,

It is the rare leader—America not very long ago had one—who can make small sanities resonate as inspiring ideas. France should be, and may be, so lucky.

So let’s hear it for social comedy. In America, unfortunately, the genre that is currently serving us best appears to be comic satire, which helps us keep our sanity in the face of absurdity. When the GOP controls all branches of government and rightwing fanaticism dominates the GOP, then other genres have a hard time gaining traction.

Luckily, we have a patron writer of our own that we can turn to. Our Moliere is Mark Twain.

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