Login | Join/Renew

Review of Mclure, Ellen M. Sunsots and the Sun King: Sovereignty and Mediation in Seventeenth-Century France.

Article Citation: 
XIV (2012): 135–137
Author: 
(Chloé Hogg)
Article Text: 

McClure, Ellen M. Sunspots and the Sun King: Sovereignty and Mediation in Seventeenth-Century France. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-252-03056-7. Pp. 316. $50.00

In chapter 4 of Le Roman comique, one of Scarron’s characters takes a nighttime trip “to the place where kings must go in person.” Scarron’s circumlocution poses in immediately felt terms the problem of representation at the heart of Ellen McClure’s erudite and agile revisiting of the question of divine right in Sunspots and the Sun King, a book that will interest scholars of early modern literature, history, and political philosophy. McClure uncovers the tensions, uncertainties, and making do that informed the articulation of divine right monarchy that has come to represent Louis XIV’s absolutism as much as the emblem of the Sun King—which, as the author reminds us, was not an unproblematic symbol of royal perfection given Galileo’s recent discovery of sunspots. It is this tacking back and forth between theory and practice, the ideal and the real, in questions about the mediation and delegation of power that, McClure convincingly argues, defined seventeenth-century France’s response to sovereignty after the political and religious upheavals of the preceding century (notably the Reformation) forced a rethinking of the relationship between state, subjects, and the divine. And it is this same tacking between theory and practice, in such domains as the writing of Louis XIV’s memoirs and the diplomatic conflicts of his reign, which comprises one of this study’s myriad strengths. Thawing the ideological block of divine right monarchy, McClure undertakes to “[reassess] the dominant discourse of legitimacy” by revealing the “fundamental contradiction between agency and dependency at the very heart of state power” (11).

Fueling McClure’s dynamic vision of power is the concept of mediation, “signify[ing] the movement of power and authority from the divine through its royal instrument” (and from the sovereign through the sovereign’s instruments), which the author analyzes in political treatises, royal memoirs, diplomatic history, and theater (7). If McClure prefers “mediation” to “representation” in order, as she explains, to avoid the latter term’s anachronistic connotations of popular political authority and positive self-interest, her concept of mediation is equally important in providing scholars of absolutism with a relational language of power. McClure’s analyses introduce a needed sense of movement and tension to static formulations of the power effects of royal representation in text and image. Privileging mediation over representation, McClure distances herself from the theoretical model furnished by Louis Marin’s “portrait du roi” (and behind this model, Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of the king’s two bodies), which performs the Eucharistic-like transformation of the king’s physical and political bodies into a sacramental/semiotic body through representation. At the same time, sovereignty for McClure becomes a more vexed undertaking when it is no longer resolved in the baroque “coup d’état” but operated through time and space and mediated through a variety of human agents.

McClure’s first two chapters are concerned with the origins of sovereignty and the role of the monarch in early modern political treatises and the memoirs authored by Louis XIV and his team of writers. In her insightful reading of Jean Bodin’s Les six livres de la république …  against the backdrop of other sixteenth-century political thinkers, sovereignty becomes a linguistic act—an act of definition as indivisible and independent as definition itself. Arguing that seventeenth-century writers such as Cardin Le Bret, Jean-François Senault, and Pierre Le Moyne formulated divine right as a means of reforging the ties between God, monarch, and subjects that Bodin had severed, McClure proceeds through a deft analysis of the vocabulary and images deployed by these writers to describe the composite nature of the sovereign and mediate between the divine and the human. She pursues questions of authority and language in a valuable chapter on Louis XIV’s memoirs, which places the king’s singular enterprise of life-writing in the context of other model texts as well as royal panegyric that both celebrated the undertaking and reinforced the mystique of kingship through “a conscious refusal to scrutinize the inner workings of the monarchy” (71). Close readings combined with illuminating analysis of omissions and corrections in the memoir manuscripts reveals the tensions involved in the articulation of the royal “je” who takes the place of God as creator and doer of his text/kingdom—thereby correcting the erasing of individual royal agency operated by divine right—yet remains “an individual constantly attempting to inhabit this position” in the text (82–83).

Expanding her focus on God and the sovereign, McClure explores issues of authority and delegation in a series of power couples that reproduce and complicate the tensions of the original duo: the sovereign and the diplomat (chapters three and four) and the playwright and the actor (chapter five). McClure links discussions of the role of the diplomat—a fraught question given the rise of international law, the growth and centralization of states, and the inadequate ideal of the ambassador of Christian peace—to the problems of mediation and “betweenness” raised by divine right. She shows how concepts of sovereignty were played out both in treatises on diplomacy and in the diplomatic controversies of Louis XIV’s reign (the 1661 conflict over préseance with the Spanish ambassador in London and the 1662 humbling of the pope after a diplomatic fracas caused by a street brawl in Rome). If Louis XIV won (at what cost?) these diplomatic stand-offs, the potential menace of the diplomat’s individuality and person, which McClure finds woven through early modern reflections on diplomacy, is fully realized in those troublesome ambassadors in theater, Oreste and Suréna, who animate scenarios of mediation deviated or blocked by the subject’s passions and the body’s attractions. McClure’s nuanced readings of theatrical figures of mediation in her last chapter—Racine’s and Corneille’s unlucky ambassadors, Rotrou’s actor Genest—shows how the theater brought questions of legitimacy and originality to bear upon the subject as much as the sovereign. The conflicts of authorship and influence inherent in theater, which McClureadroitly unravels in warring texts of the querelle du Cid and in seventeenth-century considerations of the role of the actor, magnify the challenges of the king who, like the playwright, seeks to define his own creativity and agency against the forces that would erase or corrupt his action.

McClure’s expert readings, ranging over an impressive scope of sources, reaffirm the importance of literary analysis in studying early modern formulations of the political in theory and practice. Particularly suggestive are the instances where, through the idiosyncrasies of bodies—the actor’s voice or the king’s hand counterfeited by his secretaries—McClure signals the possibility of a failure of mediation. A valuable addition to scholarship on absolutism, theater, and authorship, this compelling treatment of mediation shows writers, political thinkers, diplomats, and the king wrestling with the modalities of the delegation of absolute power through its limited instruments. 

Chloé Hogg, University of Pittsburgh

( categories: )