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Teaching the Seventeenth Century: Modernity, Motives, and Further Reflections on Critical Literacy

Article Citation: 
Cahiers XII, 2 (2009) 71–86
Larry Riggs
Article Text: 

In my paper for the Fall 2006 SE 17 conference, I focused on the issue of pedagogy as it arises in some major seventeenth-century works. As part of that project, I used Ursula Kelly’s concept “critical literacy” to help define what I believe happens when we read literary works—or, indeed, when we interpret any kind of communication—with motives, including our own, in mind. In this paper, I want to pursue further my effort to approach canonical seventeenth-century works in a way that brings them alive, that undermines their status as safely neutered—though ever-so-magnificent—museum pieces. Critical literacy is seeing reading itself as an issue; it is accepting responsibility for interpretation as an ethical act, which engages the reader as a contingent, motivated being. Also important to note, by way of introduction, is my belief that the canonical works I am reading and writing about are, themselves, concerned with the issue of interpretation. In this essay, I will read a number of canonical works as cautionary tales about reading and about the early modern anxiety over ambiguity.

As I have continued investigating the formation of the dominant version of modern culture and the issues of interpretation, pedagogy, and epistemology as they relate to modernity, I have discovered some more concepts and critiques that complement and clarify Kelly’s “critical literacy.” Kelly contrasts critical literacy, which reads for ambivalence and contestation in the very texts that constitute the canon, with cultural literacy, which uses reading of the canon as a means of social and intellectual control (1). The canon too often functions to enforce not only a certain view of what constitutes great literature, but also a limited repertory of acceptable, orthodox approaches to reading. A canon can thus be an impediment to truly critical thinking. Postmodernist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman usefully adds to Kelly’s view of literacy by distinguishing emancipatory reason from instrumental reason. Bauman even identifies certain literary figures as belonging to an ironic, irreverent counter-culture that resists mainstream modern culture’s passion for order, neat categories, and taut discipline (Tester 29, 18). I will be arguing here for adding the writers I look at to Bauman’s list of counter-cultural figures. These, I contend, are writers who work to keep ambivalence, rather than certainty, at the heart of the literary enterprise.

Bauman argues that maintaining ambivalence in the midst of modernity, which he calls the era of certainty, is crucial. Resisting the reification or ossification of the human world, which I associate with canon-formation of all kinds, is a vital function of literature and of reading. J. P. Singh Uberoi writes about an “other mind of Europe” that rejects the mind/body and subject/object dualisms which are fundamental to modern epistemology and, obviously, to conceiving reading as consumption of a stable textual object by a stable reading subject (11, 23). Reading is not neutral absorption or transparent observation. Canonical works need not be treated as fetishized items of exchangeable property. Uberoi argues convincingly that there were always alternatives to what became the dominant version of modern culture. As I prepare to teach my seventeenth-century course next spring, I am looking for ways to incorporate these new concepts and insights.

Speaking of dualisms, the “other mind” anticipates cognitive science and neuroscience by recognizing that mind is part of an integrated whole organism fully interactive with a physical and social environment (Damasio Descartes’ 252). Mind has its roots and performs its functions in a biologically complex, fragile, finite, unique organism. Therefore, there should be no epistemological discounting, much less any denigration, of the body, and knowledge can be neither objective nor universal. In a book provocatively entitled Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio validates the insights of the other mind, arguing that the mind/body is a network of relations and operations, with emotion as much a part of reason as the “lower brain” system is of thinking (xvii). Though it was wrong in detail, it seems that the theory of the humors and the general approach to medicine that prevailed from Hippocrates to the Renaissance was correct in principle. Descartes’ effort to emancipate the subject from the influence of the object rejects what earlier models of knowledge—scholasticism and theories of vision, for example—accepted. This is a major aspect of mainstream modernity to which the other mind might have offered, might still offer, an alternative. In another book, Damasio argues that Baruch Spinoza saw drives, emotions, and feelings as central to all human qualities and activities, including reason, and thus that Spinoza exemplifies the awareness that motives and interpretation are integral to the quest for knowledge (Looking 8). As Damasio sees him, then, Spinoza belongs with Bauman’s counter-cultural figures; he is an exemplar of Uberoi’s other mind.

These preliminary remarks are important for understanding the contentious cultural context in which early modern literature was produced. The most recent insights of neuroscience and postmodern theory were anticipated by a number of early modern writers, and modernity itself was always a locus of struggle. Preparation for critical reading of early modern works requires appreciation of the issues that preoccupied thinkers and writers of the period. As Robert N. Watson points out in his 2006 book, epistemological anxiety and craving for unmediated knowledge in any form were facts of early modern life (3). The argument over whether progress or regress was the route to certainty began in the Renaissance. In my view, pastoral can be read as meditation on this issue: is a return to origins possible? Can we return to the lost sensual past, escaping the mediations of civilization? Does the desire for such a return actually express itself in mere adoption of a disguise; is it always mediated, or is there still some human essence to which we could return and in which we would find a solid foundation for self-knowledge and knowledge of external truths? Clearly, L’Astrée can be read as a long, ambivalent exploration of this problem. What is the relation, if any, among identity, costume, and truth? Fears of unstable identities and meanings motivated sumptuary laws as well as increasingly aggressive, even violent efforts to explore, penetrate, and manipulate human others and the non-human world. Fear, loss, and desire—motive—are inseparable from this enterprise.

For me, Montaigne’s “Des Cannibales” is an admirable catalogue of major problems in epistemology and interpretation—in reading—and therefore an excellent point of entry into both seventeenth-century literature and critical literacy. In the essay, Montaigne begins by making it clear that what he will write is based significantly on what he has read, that his knowledge of the Brazilian Tupinambas is mediated. He refers to ancient texts and to the relativity of the term barbare (234). He mentions the mismatch between our expansive curiosité and our limited capacité and, appropriately, alludes to desire for conquest as the engine of discovery (231). What passes for truth is linked to the desire for power and profit. Montaigne goes on to point out that the very earth, even in the places that we “know” best, changes (232). Like us, the earth is a body, and it changes, as we do. So, what we have knowledge about is as unstable as are we, the knowers. Even without the cultural destabilization that comes with exploration—motivated by the desire for conquest—we should be aware that knowledge has no solid foundation, no changeless object, and no permanently stable subject.

Next, the essay deals explicitly with mediations—témoignage—and the various motives that can lead to distortion or embellishment of the truth (233–34). Here, Montaigne anticipates Pierre Gassendi on the dubiousness of language. Montaigne mandates critical reading by observing that not only the meaning of barbarie, but all of what we call vérité and raison, are contingent cultural constructions (234). He associates complex civilization with falsehood and expresses admiration for the Tupinambas’ lack of interest in territorial conquest (240). The essay’s ironical last words—”mais quoi? Ils ne portent pas de haut de chausses” (245)—are a reference to European anxiety about the relation between vestimentarry signs and identity and, it seems, an admission that Montaigne, too, is reading and interpreting from within his “own” cultural context. “Des Cannibales” deploys and simultaneously undermines the epistemological and interpretive resources available to Montaigne and his fellow Europeans. It evokes the motives—particularly the lust for conquest and profit—that energize the drive for exploration and thereby bring Europeans into contact with the phenomena that their cultural constructions cannot account for. The essay expresses the early modern preoccupation with the arbitrary, prejudiced, unstable nature of perception itself and exposes the desire for a legible world.

To recognize the presence of desire or motive at the heart of the quest for knowledge, and thereby to acknowledge the relation between desire for knowledge and desire for power, and between both and a sense of lack, is to accept loss and risk as ineluctable elements in the process of interpretation. To read critically is to feel, and to resist, the wish to read definitively in order to acquire cultural capital or property. Richard Sörman provides useful insight here, enabling us to connect the ideas of risk and loss with Molière, in particular. Sörman argues that Molière systematically challenges the possibility of certainty, which is what his ridicules seek (9). The desire for complétude is associated by the characters with the search for truth as a means of attaining certainty, and certainty is identified with dominance and control (12). Duped by pretenses of knowledge that promise them power, while enabling them to deny their desire, its origin in loss, and its attendant risks, the ridicules become participants in imposture, which is, in fact, the very worst kind of uncertainty. They try to retire from exchange (Sörman14), and their pretensions destroy connection. The craving for unmediated knowledge leads to the fetishization of the person or medium identified with that knowledge. In fact, the fetish is often language, itself. Molière’s plea, in the “Préface de Tartuffe,” that we think and speak—discourir—of things, not of words (257), reflects, as do his major plays, his awareness of the dangers of fetishization, of making signs prior to and more important than what they inadequately represent. The craving for unmediated knowledge leads to the fetishizing of mediations, to their substitution for objects of desire that entail the risk of loss. The lust for certainty, stability, and transparency thereby actually produces opacity. A mediation becomes, in effect, a screen or a wall. To focus on the mediation is to ignore the real.

In Molière’s Tartuffe, Orgon’s mental and moral enslavement to Tartuffe is based on a misinterpretation, or, perhaps more significantly, on an abdication of the responsibility to interpret. Motivated in large part by Orgon’s desire to deny his own desire and to live without risk, his acceptance of Tartuffe as an embodiment of truth amounts to a fetishization. That Orgon’s misreading permits him to overestimate his own power and stature is obvious when, in Act I, scene 5, he describes his first encounters with Tartuffe. The hypocrite has seduced his mark by making the latter feel important, even transcendent. Tartuffe’s performance has been calculated to advance his interests by exploiting Orgon’s motives. Significantly, among these motives is Orgon’s desire for control of his wife: “Et plus que mois six fois il s’en montre jaloux.” (l 304) Like a number of Molière’s other characters, Orgon believes that he can extend his own knowledge and power by employing a spy. In a sense, Tartuffe dupes Orgon by impersonating him: by embodying Orgon’s own desire, fear, and jealousy. Orgon is thereby enabled to cherish the illusion of freedom from problematical, potentially painful emotions. To be a dupe is to believe in relationships without motives and risk. It is to forget that language, however it purports to be linked to truth, is a mediation, that all mediations are constructed, and that all constructs are saturated with desire. Misreadings of the other are motivated by the desire to misread the self. The possible gap between religious words and gestures and underlying character is one of the many reasons for the early modern worry about the relation between what we might call “decor” and “true” identity. To acknowledge desire is to live in and with uncertainty.

Molière’s femmes savants, too, misread and fetishize an impostor whom they take for a source and guarantor of power for them. Again, a misinterpretation is motivated by the desire to deny or hide desire. By associating the self with a form of putative transcendence, Sörman argues, the learned ladies think they can short-circuit the contingencies of desire and make themselves entirely self-sufficient (185). Like Orgon, they forget that language is always a mediation and that to substitute a medium for a true object of desire, however well the operation may appear to banish the anxious sense of lack, is to worship a fetish and, thereby, to become an object, oneself. The idealized, would-be transcendent self is, in fact, a reified abstraction, another fetish. The ladies’ discourse is, throughout the play, dependent for any real sense on implicit, metaphorical references to the physical, to sex. Mentalist, précieux rhetoric cannot really hide desire.

In Act III, scenes 1 and 2, the ladies’ poorly disguised lust bursts through the surface of their language, as they rhetorically consume their fetish in an orgy of worship and reproduction. In the process, they become mere verbal breeding stock, copying devices for a plagiarist. Like Orgon, they misread another because they have first misread themselves. The savantes’ obsession with grammar is made more relevant as an example of obtuse misreading by the fact that French, like the other “national” languages, was/is, in part, an invention (Rifkin 189). The ladies’ ambition mocks one of the most serious projects of modernity: to facilitate the centralization of power and create larger, more powerful markets, by synthesizing and imposing national languages. The obsession with the “purity” and “correctness” of language is clearly related to Alceste’s mania for sincerity, in Le Misanthrope.

Antony McKenna is correct, I think, to include Alceste among Molière’s great impostors (73–102). The misanthrope is another dupe who tries to establish exploitable truth by making a mediation into a fetish. Alceste’s obsession with sincérité reflects his wish to escape from the obligation to interpret, his desire to rule over a realm where language will be a transparent disclosure of others’ most intimate truths. He is a particularly useful example for my purpose because he literally misreads a text in order to gain power. Molière contextualizes the episode of Célimène’s letter so as to make clear both Alceste’s misunderstanding of the status of language, in general, and his motives for misreading Célimène’s letter, in particular. The example of Alceste also permits us to see clearly that, in early modernity, woman often stands for all that resists the desire for comprehensive, stable knowledge. Watson points out that, in English Renaissance tragedies, there is often an emphasis on reaching and extracting a woman’s “truth” (31). Alceste wants to use language as a tool of penetration, an instrument of torture, and a form of vivisection. He pretends that, by obtaining Célimène’s letter—and, of course, ignoring the motives of Arsinoé, who “revealed” it to him—he has extracted her deepest truth.

Alceste’s inquisition into Célimène’s truth, his effort to penetrate and dissect her interior, is highlighted by his misreading of her letter. At the end of Act III, scene 5, Arsinoé has offered Alceste not only a pleine lumière to illuminate Célimène’s interior being, but also, implicitly, herself as consolation for the disillusionment he will feel after reading the letter. So, Alceste’s reading of the letter is framed by Arsinoé’s motives for showing it to him and his for accepting her offer. In Act IV, scene 2, Alceste, having read the letter, announces to Eliante and Philinte that he has experienced the equivalent of “le déchaînement de toute la nature.” (l 1221) Linking woman and nature as fearsome threats is symptomatic of early modernity’s preoccupation with epistemological instability and exemplifies the use of woman as both the symbol of the loss of certainty and the obstacle to regaining it. When Alceste says that it is a letter that has revealed Célimène’s perfidy, Philinte immediately suggests that a letter can be deceptive and must be read—interpreted--cautiously. Alceste rejects this responsibility, preferring to regard the letter as a bit of certainty so concrete, so objectified, that he can actually carry it in his pocket.

Rather than a metaphorical space where motives meet and interact, then, this text is, for Alceste, a stable object whose possession gives him both knowledge and power. He makes all of the mistakes denounced by Montaigne. Alceste treats a mediation as if it were a revelation, and, in the next scene, he excoriates Célimène in language that evokes the Inquisition and a judicial proceeding. Alceste tries to gain decisive power over Célimène by acquiring and flaunting definitive knowledge of her. She easily deflects his effort to penetrate her by suggesting that the letter may be an example of just what he likes to denounce: insincerity. Its flowery expressions of regard ought to reassure him, since he has denounced such flattery as so conventional and promiscuous as to be obviously false. Alceste’s attempt to establish a stable, potent identity for himself by objectifying Célimène collapses in the contingency of his reading. He exemplifies a modern tendency powerfully evoked by Peggy Phelan: “The widespread belief in the possibility of understanding has committed us, however unwittingly, to a conventional narrative of betrayal, disappointment, and rage.”

Though superficially rather different from each other and from the other major ridicules, Harpagon and Dom Juan are two more Molière characters who exemplify the error of confusing mediation with reality, of fetishizing signs and substituting them for substance. Besides worrying about increasingly slippery social signifiers and the problematical relation between clothes, for example, and identity, some early moderns recognized money as an example of how arbitrary signifiers can come between people and their world (Watson 9). As I have argued elsewhere (see Chapter Two of Modernity), Harpagon’s case associates the themes of loss and femaleness with this substitution of money for direct but risky, incalculable experience. As much as the other characters I have spoken of, here, Harpagon is the dupe of his own desire for stability and power. His famous confusion of his cassette with his daughter and with his own entrailles (Act V, scene 3) reflects his hostility to emotion and the body as well as the ineluctable presence of what he has repressed at the heart of his conscious preoccupations.

The fact that Harpagon has buried the cassette in the garden and constantly “visits” it suggests that it may be the grave of something or someone he has loved and lost: his wife, perhaps. Money appears to be for Harpagon, as Tartuffe is for Orgon, the “carrier” of his desire and his sense of loss and lack. The fact that desire is central to his misreading of reality is also suggested by his usury: as a moneylender, he exploits the same desires that he fears and tries to control in his home. He exacerbates the desires of those who surround him, and he ultimately encounters the consequences of his denial of motives when he confronts his son as a borrower desperate enough to accept Harpagon’s devilish terms. Because he has substituted signifiers for substance, and thereby imposed a pervasive sense of loss, Harpagon’s world is saturated with the ravenous desire he fears. By mortifying bodies, to the point of stealing oats from his own horses, the miser turns those bodies into voracious appetites. When, in Act IV, scene 7, Harpagon takes himself for the thief who has stolen the cassette, he is actually interpreting things correctly. He is a thief. Substituting signifiers for substance is a theft. When a fetishized medium, such as money, is substituted for reality, reality disappears; it is lost, as if stolen.

Dom Juan speaks like a book; in his effort to make bookish, manipulative rhetoric an effective instrument of his desire, he actually substitutes that rhetoric for his desire: “Mais lorsqu’on en est maître une fois, il n’y a plus rien à dire, ni rien à souhaiter.” (Act I, scene 2) For Dom Juan, women are abstract pretexts for verbal tours de force, and words are, in effect, ends in themselves. The ambition to control leads to alienation and loss. Like Harpagon, he has substituted fetishized signs for objects of desire who might resist or disappoint him. Successful manipulation—what works—has become his criterion of truth. He admirably exemplifies Bauman’s definition of alienation: he confronts himself as separate from others and as having an interest in keeping distant from them (Tester 27). He has subordinated the world to his ambition and, like the other ridicules, rejected contingent, risky exchange. Dom Juan’s attempt to use language to dominate others reduces him to an object. He speaks like a book, after all. In Act II, scene 4, as he confronts both Charlotte and Mathurine at the same time, Dom Juan is reduced to a machine for the hyper-production of repetitive rhetoric. He frantically repeats the same empty promises to the two women. The nobleman’s grandiose framing of his enterprise in terms of one of early modernity’s ruling tropes—he compares himself to the conquistadors—links him to motives denounced by Montaigne and makes him all the more ridiculous when he joins the femmes savantes in serving as a copying device for hackneyed verbiage.

Dom Juan’s conception of love and his treatment of women prepare us to appreciate fully the analysis of motives in La Princesse de Clèves. I read Madame de Lafayette’s novel as an explosively dense exploration of the themes I have elucidated here. I believe the novel can be understood as the story of a woman who experiences and ultimately refuses life as a fetish. Madame de Lafayette begins her narrative by evoking the Court as an environment saturated with hidden desire. It is rife with dissimulation and haunted by fear and a sense of lack. The Princesse’s fate in the novel is tied inextricably to the issue of interpretation, of reading. It is thus also tied to the web off motives and desires at whose center she finds herself.

I noted in October 2006 that Madame de Chartres has isolated her daughter from the Court and carefully educated her in order to make her a highly desirable object of desire there. I would add, now, that Mademoiselle de Chartres/Madame de Clèves is an example of woman as representative for others of lack and of the desire to repair that lack, as a symbol of all that resists the lust for knowledge and control, and as a subject who must interpret what goes on around her in a condition of confusion, vulnerability, and relative ignorance, and in terms of her own fear and desire.

At Court, all is motive and mediation, and the courtiers maneuver constantly to penetrate one another’s dissimulations and to possess the truth. That Mademoiselle de Chartres is a fetish and an archetypal object of the desire for knowledge is clear when Monsieur de Clèves first encounters her at a jeweler’s and is amazed both by her beauty and by the fact that he does not know who she is. She fits perfectly into the role of Woman as archetypal mysterious Object. It might be said that the Court--where knowledge is power, truth is hidden by hypocrisy and ornamentation, and stakes are high--is a perfect metaphor for the state of epistemological panic that leads to spying, inquisitions, torture, and other violent means of penetrating and manipulating in the quest for truth. As a beautiful, rich, and unknown woman, Mademoiselle de Chartres is inevitably the focus of hungry desire.

The episode of the portrait (302–03) emphasizes that the Princesse is the object of a desire that would reduce her to an object that can be possessed, stolen, and circulated. In fact, of course, the portrait is merely a mediation saturated with desire, a fetish willfully misunderstood as conferring power over the woman herself, as well as symbolizing a rival’s victory over her husband. As in the other cases I have looked at here, the desire for knowledge and/as power has motivated a misreading of the status and potency of mediations. The incident of the Vidame de Chartres’s letter brings the theme of motivated, contingent reading or interpretation into sharp focus. Like Alceste, Madame de Clèves at first “understands” the letter’s existence in terms of her desire and her fear: “Mme. de Clèves lut cette lettre et la relut plusieurs fois, sans savoir néanmoins ce qu’elle avait lu. Elle voyait seulement que M. de Nemours ne l’aimait pas” (310 my emphasis). Her desire and her fear completely condition her interpretation. There is, in fact, no concrete, certain “meaning” of the text. Its emotional significance—and I would argue that all significance is emotional—changes when she is persuaded that the letter was not addressed to Nemours.

Spying and its failure to penetrate beyond mediation and interpretation are essential in this novel, too. Monsieur de Clèves, like Alceste, “finds” the malheur that he seeks by sending a spy to watch his wife and then ignoring the issues of mediation and interpretation. The spy draws inferences from what he sees about what he does not see, and the Prince de Clèves chooses a disastrous certainty over continued uncertainty. Having been educated to be desired, to resist that desire, and to repress her own desire, and having experienced life as a fetish, Madame de Clèves retires from the world of desire and interpretation, leaving us to choose our own significance for her inimitable example, our own motivated, contingent reading of the novel and to remember that ambivalencde cannot really be escaped or eliminated.

Having expanded the “seventeenth century” at the beginning to include Montaigne, I plan to extend it at the end to suggest that the epistemology of vivisection and the drive to penetrate and manipulate nature and women in order to possess truth and acquire secure knowledge find their appropriate logical and practical conclusion in the Marquis de Sade’s violent physical and moral inquisition. Seeking to know and own the heart of another through romantic love or violent sex is a displacement of the same yearning that also manifests itself in the ambitions of science. Representation as a psychic as well as a cultural and political crisis, and the related anxiety about the arbitrary, unstable, prejudiced nature of perception itself, are exacerbated by the specter of deliberate deception. Power over an objectified other offers the illusion of a solution to this problem. Sade’s works take to their logical extreme both the impulse to make woman stand in for the key to certainty and power and the despairing, violent recourse to manipulation as a substitute for contingent knowledge and authentic exchange. Recognizing the will to dominance that colors the rhetoric of colonizers, seducers, prosecutors, and scientists is a key result of critical reading.

Butler University


1 Fréderic Rouvillois and Anthony Cascardi are among the best of the many commentators on the conflicts and contradictions in the early history of modernity.

2 Urbanization, capitalism, new technologies, and the Reformation all contributed to anxieties about mediations and the loss of a more sensual, directly apprehended world in the past (Watson 5).

3 D’Urfé’s pastoral novel seems an especially rich literary evocation of the early modern preoccupation with sources: the metaphorical quest for the lost Eden as well as the literal searches for the sources of rivers.

4 Montaigne is more authentically skeptical than Sir Francis Bacon, who conflated the discovery of the New World with his “discovery” of what we know as the scientific method. Bacon compares his natural philosophy to a reinvasion/reoccupation of Eden (Watson 21), while Montaigne recognizes that expanding exploration actually undermines certainty.

5 By “fetishization,” here, I mean the substitution of signs, or objects that function as signs, for that to which the signs refer or once referred. This substitution, I will argue, is motivated by the desire for certainty and control. On a deeper level, the substitution reflects the repression of fear and a sense of loss or lack. Molière’s comic types live in a world of fetishes, which they prefer to the risky, contingent world of relationships.

6 The phrase pleine lumière, connected as it is here with a kind of spying, evokes the increasing ocularcentrism of early modern epistemology and the linkage of light, clarity, and power. Interestingly, Alceste simultaneously ignores not only the fact that the letter itself requires interpretation, but also the fact that only Arsinoé’s obviously self-interested temoignage connects it to Célimène, in the first place.

7 This play gives us a particularly powerful example of how woman and her interior truth serve as metaphors for the Object of epistemological desire and of that desire’s entanglement with sexuality and with the general problem of lack and insecurity.

8 That Alceste is the atrabilaire amoureux makes clear the centrality of the body to motivation and perception.

9 Wendell Berry evocatively calls money the “universal proxy” and argues that it tends to devour all other values (22).

10 Robert Weimann usefully characterizes modern culture as having the telescope and the voyage of discovery as its principal underlying metaphors (7).

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