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Tsien: Between Cleverness and Folly: the Enigmas of the Mercure galant

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XI, 1 (2006) 193–218
Jennifer Tsien
Article Text: 

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People of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries delighted in a variety of word games, from bouts-rimés to logogryphes to énigmes, or riddles in verse. While they came into vogue in the context of worldly conversations, notably in the social circles of the marquise de Rambouillet,1 their popularity spread to a wider public in printed form by means of the journal Le Mercure galant.2 We can see the vitality of this trend, from the journal's beginnings in the 1670's to the revolutionary era, in the persistent regularity with which they appear in each month’s issue and in the increasing numbers of readers who are listed as having responded to them. However, mentions of these games in contemporary literature, from Molière to Louis-Sébastien Mercier, reveal an overwhelming sense of hostility and contempt for their practitioners, who are portrayed as fools and false wits.

What is it about these games that associates them with foolish readers? Why do so many writers bother to attack such seemingly minor, ephemeral forms? The likely answer can be found in the uneasy relationship between these word games and poetry. While their fans made the assumption that such a connection existed, the writers who chastised these enthusiasts were eager to set boundaries between “true” belles-lettres and “mere” bel-esprit. More specifically, these word puzzles, by their very form, defied certain classical conventions and for this reason, as I will demonstrate, they provoked the critics to oust them from the realm of literature. I would like to examine one specific type of word game, namely the énigmes, and in particular what the critical attacks on them reveal about the conflict between two competing literary aesthetics.

Since few modern-day readers have come across these puzzles, let me start by explaining how they work. 3Enigmes present a text in verse which calls for a response consisting of a single word, as one can see in this example from the May 1689 issue of the Mercure:

La peine succede au plaisir,
Le travail au loisir,
Et c'est moy qui ramene
Le travail & la peine.
J'abrege mesme le sommeil,
Pour rappeller les gens à leurs soins ordinaires,
A leur commerce, à leurs affaires,
Et je fais étaler avec grand appareil
Ce que l'on ne vend pas en plus d'une semaine.
Enfin je suis un des fils du Soleil,
Et j'ai la lune pour Marraine. 4

The editor does not reveal the answer, which is "lundi," until the next issue, but in the meantime, some readers may have already seen through the deceptive personification of the day that brings work and suffering, shortens sleep, and displays the leftover wares of the previous week. Others may have resolved the apparent contradiction of having the sun as a father, who makes the day possible, and the moon as a godmother, who provides the name lune.

If I choose to focus especially on this type of word game and its appearance in one journal, it is because the word énigme, together with the word Mercure, is so often mentioned in criticism and satire of so-called frivolous literature. Evidently, in these attacks, énigmes become a synecdoche for a whole aesthetic and accompanying lifestyle. One of the most intriguing aspects of the énigmes is therefore not the nature of the riddles themselves, but the frequent depiction in the literature of the period of the readers who are obsessed with them. While in our time, crossword puzzles and children's riddles stand innocuously outside the realm of the literary, the Early Modern forms I have just mentioned perch on a fuzzy borderline between pastimes and belles-lettres. Because of their contested status and because of their enormous popularity, they attracted the satirical venom of certain contemporary writers. As I hope to prove, the énigmes even threatened a certain dominant ideology, the "doctrine classique," as defined in the twentieth century by René Bray,5 whose proponents sought the exclusive right to judge literature.

In the comic writings I will discuss, several accusations appear repeatedly: first, the word games are linked to frivolous social circles with literary pretensions, in which pleasure takes precedence over instruction. Secondly, the word games supposedly break the rules of bienséance, either by evoking objects that are too vulgar for poetry or by mixing elements of humble and elevated language. The third objection proceeds directly from one of the tenets of the classical doctrine, which is the need for clarity: why would one express something in a deliberately veiled way when one can just state it plainly? Finally, according to critics, all this manipulation of language gives the énigmatistes6 the illusion that they belong to a closed elite which is defined by its members' cleverness, and for this reason their pride had to be punctured through ridicule.

In numerous novels and plays, starting from the mid-seventeenth century, the attacks on word games aim at the literary pretensions of women and the supposedly foppish effetes who live among them. One prominent example is the encounter between Molière’s Précieuses ridicules and the sham intellectuals who have come to deceive them. In scene 9, Cathos says, “Pour moi, j’aime terriblement les énigmes”; naturally, the disguised valet Mascarille, indulges her by responding, “Cela exerce l’esprit, et j’en ai fait quatre encore ce matin, que je vous donnerai à deviner” (Molière 275). By citing these word games, along with genres such as madrigaux and portraits, almost as passwords, Cathos and Magdelon attempt to show their guest that they belong in the realm of bel-esprit. In response, Mascarille surreptitiously points out the pettiness of these genres by juxtaposing them with the idea of serious intellectual exertion, with words such as "profond" and "difficulté." The risible claim that he wrote four of them in one morning reinforces the conception of these riddles as mental exercises, as if one could see them as the equivalent of poetic weight-lifting. By caricaturing the aspiring précieuses Cathos and Magdelon, Molière convinces his audience that the activities of the literary women of his time can be reduced to games. Such contemptuous references to énigmes and other minor genres continue in subsequent decades, as writers mock anyone —male or female—who could believe that participating in such activities could be a sign of intelligence.

To fight against the influence of these popular games, critics could wield the weapons of classical rules, for énigmes could be accused of dissociating pleasure from moral instruction. As René Bray documents in La Formation de la doctrine classique, the Horatian ideal or pleasing and instructing met with nearly universal agreement in seventeenth-century France—among Ancients, Moderns, academics and mondains. To defy this precept was to risk being demoted from poet to entertainer. For instance, in his Dissertation du poème épique, Pierre Le Moyne cites this rule as one justification for the moral importance of poets in society. To do so, he needs to separate serious poets from those who only please, calling the latter “des bateleurs de réduits et [...] des plaisants de ruelles” (Bray 69). He thus gives street performers and salon witlings the same shameful status.

The majority of writers of the Ancien Régime at least paid lip service to the idea of pleasing and instructing, with a few notable exceptions who defended the idea that art's main purpose was to give pleasure to the audience, and perhaps only incidentally to teach them a moral lesson. The latter included Pierre Corneille, who openly defied the Academy's critique in the name of the public who took great pleasure in watching Le Cid.7 Like Corneille's tragi-comedy, the énigmes found opponents among the erudite but they could at least claim to have pleasure and popularity on their side. A less direct strategy for defending pleasure was used by the ingenious Paul Pellisson, an intimate of Madeleine de Scudéry, who found a way to adapt the Horatian principle to his literary practices. He first acknowledged that instructing was indeed an important purpose of art, but then he gave a conveniently wide definition to the word instruire: “Ces écrits qu'on traite communément de bagatelles [...] ils répandent partout la joie, qui est, après la vertu, le plus grand de tous les biens” (cited by Bray 71). In short, he argued that the word games are morally good because they inspire joy, which is almost equal to virtue.

How did the participants of the word games understand the tenet of “plaire et instruire”? The editor of the Mercure galant himself, Donneau de Visé, did nothing to discourage the idea that the purpose of the journal was to amuse women. As he takes on the voice of a flirtatious gentleman (hence the “galant” in the title) addressing a fictional lady, he claims that he would never burden her with anything too long or too difficult, lest her attention grow weary. He promises to keep her abreast of “ grandes nouvelles publiques,” as well as provide anecdotes, poems, and other amusements, but he also declares that “il m'importe peu qu’elles soient utiles à d'autres, pourvu qu’elles vous divertissent: c’est mon unique but, et c’est pourquoi je commence par une histoire, avant que d'entrer dans le détail des nouvelles de cette semaine.”8 By seeking to entertain, he carelessly tosses aside the second half of the traditional dictum to “plaire and instruire.”

Likewise, in salon conversations such as those depicted by Madeleine de Scudéry, pleasure asserts itself as an end in itself, without shame. Delphine Denis, in her study of Scudéry, states that worldly conversation “appartient donc de plein droit à la sphère du divertissement.”9 Within this playful realm, even more playful activities are valued, such as rebuses, lotteries, and énigmes. “Ces jeux, loin d'être taxés de futilité ou de puérilité, tiennent au contraire une grande place dans nos conversations, où ils manifestent ‘l’esprit de joye’ qui doit y régner.” Instead of using language to find truth, the participants agree to detach language from meaning and didacticism, as Denis explains:

Ces formes mineures, éphémères productions d'une coterie mondaine, n’ont d’autre raison d’être que leur agrément [...] d’autres formes littéraires, grâce à la conversation, commencent timidement à revendiquer pour fin propre le plaisir, et non l'instruction des lecteurs. Ce badinage échappe ainsi, par son “agréable folie” même, aux foudres des censeurs: ce n’est pas de leur juridiction qu’il relève (Denis 251).

Even though Delphine Denis claims that minor genres such as word games escape the censorship of the academic critics because they are, so to speak, off the radar, we can see that contemporary authors and critics certainly make their disapproval felt by mocking the énigmes. The perceived threat that they posed was thus in part due to their open defiance of one of the rules that the erudites imposed on the rest of the literary world.

Furthermore, critics can make several other objections to accepting énigmes as real poetry and its practitioners to true gens de lettres by pointing to the problematic diction of these verses. According to opponents, they defied the conventions of poetry in two ways: by using a linguistic register that is simply too low and by mixing elevated and common words in an unseemly way. As anyone familiar with the literature of the Ancien Régime knows, numerous critics had warned against approaching the “grossier” in literature. Bouhours, for example, in his Entretiens d’Ariste et Eugène, describes the dignity of the French language: “ses expressions sont nobles et modestes tout ensemble; elle fuit les façons de parler basses.”10 Similarly, in the words of Charles Batteux, expression must be “également éloignée de la grossièreté et de l’affectation, deux vices aussi contraires au goût dans la société qu’ils sont dans les arts.” 11Whether the énigmes break this rule remains to be seen.

Among those who attack énigmes on the grounds of vulgarity was the playwright Edmé Boursault. His 1683 comedy Le Mercure galant features one foolish enthusiast named Beaugénie, who makes his appearance before the editor of the journal and presents him with what he calls the most beautiful enigma ever created:

Je suis un invisible corps
Qui de bas lieu tire mon être,
Et je n’ose faire connaître
Ni qui je suis ni d’où je sors.
Quand on m’ôte la liberté
Pour m’échapper j’use d’adresse,
Et deviens femelle traîtresse,
De mâle que j’aurais été12 (Boursault 92).

Since none of the other characters venture a guess, he announces the answer: “C’est un vent échappé par en bas.” And in response to their silence, probably due to their reaction to the unseemly reference to flatulence, he continues,

Vous vous regardez tous, et j’en sais bien la cause:
Tous ceux qui l’ont ouïe ont fait la même chose.
Sur un sujet si faible un ouvrage si beau
Paraît à tout le monde un prodige nouveau (Boursault 94).

The appalled speechlessness attests to the fact that in this period the bodily functions had already been relegated to the realm of the private, the process that Norbert Elias traces in The History of Manners.13 With this example, Boursault’s imagination shows us the excesses that bad poetry can lead to: the descent into the low and the vulgar. Beaugénie’s excessive pride shows us that he, too, is metaphorically “plein de vent,” and his disregard of the rules of literary and social decorum highlights one of the major issues in the aesthetic dispute over énigmes.

Nevertheless, Boursault’s fictional énigme-writer Beaugénie descends far below the level of vulgarity that the Mercure's riddles ever do. In fact, a glance at the history of the énigme shows us that the importation of the word game from Renaissance Italy to the salons of seventeenth-century France involved a certain sanitizing of the content. As Florence Vuilleumier-Laurens points out in Les Enigmes de ce temps, the abbé Cotin, a salon habitué and fan of enigmas, denounced his Italian predecessors such as Straparola in the name of decorum and moral decency. Cotin thus distanced himself and those of his society from this Italian wit whose riddles coyly employed double entendres which verged on the obscene (Cotin lxxiii–lxxiv). Although practitioners such as Cotin and the editors of the Mercure maintained their word games at the level of bonne compagnie, the stigma associated with their predecessors still unfairly tainted the genre's reputation.

If one were to object to the word choice of the énigmes, one could more fairly accuse them of using ordinary words from daily life. If one looks at a number of énigmes from the Mercure, one must admit that the riddles and their solutions often included humble words such as le balai, le trictrac, le jeu de paume, and la petite verole, normally unseen in poetry of the period. With the exception of the rhetorical division between high, low, and middle style, however, it is difficult to cite an explicit rule that bans using such words in poetry. Nevertheless, we learn of the principle from the taunts directed towards those who transgress it—for example, when Perrault’s interlocutors in the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes object to Homer’s use of the expressions “dog-face” and his evocation of women washing clothes and cooking fish. In a different example, the comic effect of Scarron in works such as Virgile travesti relies largely on the pleasant shock of seeing such banal references to money as “quinze mille livres de rente” or to food such as “œufs frais” or “potage,” in a retelling of the Aeneid.

The chevalier de Jaucourt, in his entry “Enigme” in the Encyclopédie, confirms that ordinary items have no place in poetry:

Les gens de lettres un peu distingués du siecle passé, qui ont eu la foiblesse de donner dans cette mode [...] seroient bien honteux aujourd'hui [...] d'annoncer à la France, qu’ils avoient eu assez d’esprit pour exprimer, sous un certain verbiage, sous un jargon mystérieux & des termes équivoques, une flûte, une fleche, un éventail, une horloge (Encyclopédie, vol.5, p. 690).

Without citing the reason why these words are objectionable, Jaucourt asserts that gens de lettres should feel shame at devoting their efforts to describing such objects.

What further complicates the question of diction and decorum is the elevated tone of many of the enigmas. One example of such a fusion of high and low, of lyrical and quotidian, appears in the March 1689 issue of the Mercure:

Je suis un composé de douceur & de charmes,
Les Dieux pour me former d’interessent pour moy,
Neptune par sa mer m’offre je ne sçay quoi,
Cybelle par son sein, l’Aurore par ses larmes.
Minerve par ses fruits fournit une liqueur;
Vertumne par ses dons se met de la partie;
Bacchus par ses raisins y mesle un peu d’aigreur,
Et de tout leur mélange on me voit assortie.
Fait-on quelque Regal, quelque noble festin,
On m’invite aussi-tost pour venir à la table;
Je n’y bois, ny ne mange, & vois plus d’une main
Qui s’arme contre moy; suis-je pas miserable? (Mercure 297–298)

To explain how one could arrive at the correct answer of “salad,” it would perhaps be useful to explain the erudite, though not particularly original, allusions in the verses. First, the lettuce plant can only grow with the aid of the gods, since Neptune waters it, Cybele provides the earth, and Aurora presumably supplies the morning sunlight. Once the lettuce is prepared to be served, it receives olive oil from Minerva, who introduced the olive tree to humans, and vinegar, which is wine in a different form, from Bacchus. Vertumnus, Roman god of fruits and the harvest, probably adds tomatoes and other ingredients to the salad. In the final stanza, the salad can be described as the metaphorical guest who comes to the table but cannot eat nor drink, since it is a dish, but is instead threatened by the fork and knife of the person who is eating.

Needless to say, the banality of the word salad would normally exile this text from the realm of poetry, in spite of its poetical ornaments. The presence of ordinary words sets énigmes apart from the poetry and poetics of the Ancien Régime, and one can sense the frustration of the critics at the decidedly non-transcendent character of these verses. Even Renaissance emblems, which seem to share many characteristics with the énigmes since they also describe an object in verse, still derive their value from their symbolic meaning. If an emblem depicts a rose or a sun, for example, it is evident that the reader should seek a higher meaning that goes beyond the object's concrete definition. By contrast, rather than conform to the stereotypically lofty language of love or heroism, the énigmes form the bridge between Italian bernesque literature, which lavished bombastic language on an everyday object such as an egg, and the works of twentieth-century poet Francis Ponge, which dwell on the bread-like qualities of bread, or which describe oysters or cigarettes in detail.

Aside from the largely unfounded accusations of vulgarity—justified in the sense of mentioning objects of everyday life, but unjustified in the sense of obscenity or scatology—a major objection to the enigmas from a critic's point of view lay in the intentional obscurity that defined these texts. An overwhelming number of critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries maintained that the ability to hide meaning was not a desirable quality in poetry. Among them was the père Bouhours, who wrote in his Entretiens d’Ariste et Eugène that in order to speak well,

il faut [...] avoir une certaine clarté que tous les grands genies n’ont pas. Car il y en a qui sont naturellement obscurs, et qui affectent mesme de l’estre: la pluspart de leurs pensées sont autant d’enigmes et de mysteres; leur langage est une espece de chiffre, on n’y comprend presque rien qu’à force de deviner (Bouhours 202–03).

In fact, for Bouhours, clarity defined the French language itself, whose great virtue was to express things as they are, as opposed to bombastic Spanish and coquettish Italian. Therefore, to clutter expression with ornaments and word games meant to betray the very soul of the French character:

Ceux qui n'appellent jamais les choses par leur nom, et qui ne parlent que par metaphore, ne parlent pas trop bien françois. Ils sont aussi éloignez du caractere de nôtre langue, repliqua Eugene, que les masques, qui courent les ruës pendant le carnaval avec des habillements bizarres, sont éloignez de nos modes (Bouhours 53-54).

In this treatise, Bouhours defends his ideal of the French language against many rivals, including other languages, other periods, and, most significantly for this study, other contemporary ideals of French, such as the one forged in the salons. He explicitly denounces the latter by stating:

Un stile affeté ne [...] déplaist gueres moins, que les fausses precieuses déplaisent aux gens de bon goust, avec toutes leurs façons, et toutes leurs mines [...] Moy je ne sçache rien qui dégouste davantage les personnes raisonnables, que le jargon de certaines femmes qui se servent à toute heure d'expressions extraordinaires (Bouhours 54–55).

Thus he pits “fausses précieuses” (leaving the status of true précieuses uncertain) and their “extraordinary” way of speaking against his ideal of taste and reason.

Decades later, the abbé de Bellegarde upholds an aesthetic similar to Bouhours’ when he continues to insist on an ideal of tasteful language that excludes any obscurity:

L’affectation dont je parle en matière de langage, consiste quelques fois dans de certains mots à qui on donne des sens détournez & mysterieuses ou qui paraissent extraordinaires à cause de leur nouveauté [et un] assemblage de certaines expressions, qui naturellement ne devroient point être ensemble, mais on les lie par pure affectation, pour se distinguer du commun & pour ne parler pas, comme l’on parle ordinairement.14

Bouhours and Bellegarde belonged to a tradition of defining the French language by its clarity, which continued and gained momentum well into the eighteenth century.

Imprecations against l’énigmatique in the name of clarity included a far wider range of writings than just énigmes: while some in some texts, the critics seek to correct the aesthetic follies of the fans of the Mercure, other texts clearly aim at a religious target. The treatises that attack the latter disapprove of the obscurity of Christian writings that defy logic, the idea of esoteric hidden meanings in Scripture, and the tortured writing style attributed to priests and theologians. Since critics such as Boileau and Voltaire could only go so far without confronting the mysteries of the Christian religion itself, they sometimes had recourse to distinguishing the core of the religion from the religious commentators who corrupted it. For example, Boileau, in his Satire XII against l'équivoque, establishes that the world was good when God first created it, but goodness and truth were eventually covered by the multiple meanings and ambiguous words of religious interpretation. In fact, he compares religious chaos to the verses that meet the standards of the Mercure galant, since both are filled with error:

De cette erreur dans peu naquirent plus de sectes
[...] qu'en toutes saisons sur les murs, à Paris,
On ne voit affichés de recueils d'amourettes,
De vers, de contes bleus, de frivoles sornettes.
Souvent peu recherchés du public nonchalant,
Mais vantés à coup sûr du Mercure galant (verses 225–232).15

The more radical baron d’Holbach, however, in Le Christianisme dévoilé, goes as far as to reproach priests of covering useless arguments in obscure expressions: “Les prêtres du christianisme amuserent leur oisiveté par les spéculations inutiles d'une science barbare et énigmatique, qui, sous le nom de science de Dieu, ou de théologie, s'attira les respects du vulgaire.”16 In order for Boileau, Bouhours, Bellegarde, and their fellows to impose their standards of truth and clarity, they needed to sweep away both the enigmatic and the enigmas,17 the dark recesses of Biblical meaning and playful equivocations between everyday words.

In the Encyclopédie, Jaucourt also makes a connection between the énigmes and religious obscurity. In his explanation of the riddles’ origin, Jaucourt suggests that priests and kings of ancient times needed to invent a language in which wisdom could be transmitted, but which was not obvious to the populace:

les sages ou ceux qui se donnoient pour tels, crurent devoir cacher au vulgaire une partie de leurs connoissances. Par - là, le langage imaginé pour la clarté fut changé en mysteres: le style dans lequel ces prétendus sages renfermoient leurs instructions, étoit obscur & énigmatique, peut - être par la difficulté de s'exprimer clairement; peut - être aussi à dessein de rendre les connoissances d'autant plus estimables qu'elles seroient moins communes (vol. 5, p. 590).

He uses an obviously disapproving tone, since he constantly puts the authority of these sages in doubt and even claims that if the hidden truths were expressed clearly, they would have seemed less impressive. The fact that he attributes their origins to ancient rulers does not lend any legitimacy to the énigmes, and to make these origins more dubious, he underlines their “Oriental” character, by which he means Biblical, as exemplified by Samson and Solomon.

Qu’on ne dise point en faveur des énigmes, que leur invention est des plus anciennes, & que les rois d’Orient se sont fait très - long tems un honneur d’en composer & d'en résoudre: je répondrois que cette ancienneté même n'est ni à la gloire des énigmes, ni à celle des rois orientaux (vol. 5, p. 590).

Whether they are parlor games of the seventeenth-century salons or ancient tests of wisdom, they are equally foolish in the eyes of Jaucourt, who asserts that a better way to use one’s mental energies is to resolve the mysteries of science.

If foolish readers impetuously mistook word games for real poetry, we should consider some reasons why two groups of people would uphold the following opposing claims: on one hand, that the énigmes are poetry, and on the other, that they are not. Why wouldn't one view the énigmes as literary works? They are in verse, they rhyme, and more importantly, they have a meaning. As in poetry, words have multiple senses, and one can enjoy full satisfaction only when one has succeeded in finding the true solution that coherently explains the whole work. The creator of the riddle, as the readers depicted within the Mercure itself claim, has obviously taken a great deal of trouble and has used up great stores of ingenuity to convey a simple message in a circuitous fashion. The first editor of the Mercure, Donneau de Visé, defends this position in the August 1677 issue, after giving the letter R as the solution to the first enigma:

Jamais ouvrage n’a tant donné de peine, ou n’a du moins dû en tant donner; c’est sans contredit le plus beau que nous ayons de tous ceux qui mettent l’esprit à la gêne, et qu’on ne peut faire qu’avec une application extraordinaire [...] j’ai de la peine à concevoir comment il s’est trouvé une personne qui ait voulu s’appliquer assez fortement, et assez longtemps, pour faire un ouvrage si rempli de difficultés. (20–23)

Following this train of thought, the reader must be equally cunning in order to extract the various nuances and ambiguities of each line.

Later editors of the Mercure show a measure of impatience for these games and for their frenzied fans, even though they almost guarantee the success of their journalistic enterprise. François Moureau, in his study of the Mercure, cites Dufresny’s increasingly enraged observations about this form. “Le genre Enigmatique tient lieu de sublime à bien des gens” (Moureau 37), among whom he includes contemptible provincials and the risible “bourgeois de second ordre.” These “demi-sçavants” love to guess things, Dufresny complains, while real savants actually know things; but the former believe nonetheless they are the true intellectuals merely because they can solve the énigmes of the Mercure. Like Dufresny, his successor Le Fèvre de Fontenay at first expressed his lack of interest in these puzzles, but finally gave in to the fact that many readers bought the journal especially for the énigmes.18

Perhaps even more puzzling to the editors themselves was the conspiratorial air shared by the riddle-solvers who submitted their answers and names each month so that they could be listed in the pages of the Mercure. Those who are able to discover the solution, as well as those who submit their énigmes for publication in the Mercure, seem to consider themselves as constituting an “in-crowd,” a self-designated elite of supposedly superior intelligence. As the years pass, from 1677 onwards, the list becomes longer and the names become increasingly bizarre. Some examples of those who are listed as having submitted the correct answer are: les Prisonniers du Fort-l’Evêque, la Jolie Solitaire de la rue saint Honoré, la Brebis Amoureuse et son Pasteur Mouton bellant, le Captif délivré de la Barbarie, and l'Innocence reconnue de la rue Maçon. Some volunteered their names in anagram form: l’abbé à l’anagrame Regard, l’abbé à l’anagrame Grosel. This strange trend in facetious pseudonyms represents an extension of the nature of the énigmes themselves, as if those “in the know” make their own identities into a game whose solution is only known to their acquaintances, or perhaps only to themselves.

Indeed, the reader is central to the work of the enigma. Unlike more elevated forms of poetry, which can stand alone, the enigmas remain incomplete until a reader presents a solution. One can speculate that the dialogic or communal structure made necessary by the nature of the riddle further provoked the unease of critics who believed in the right of literary authorities to impose judgment on the public unilaterally. In fact, the appeal to a response made the riddles and other games particularly apt vehicles for the conversational aesthetic of such salon leaders as Madeleine de Scudéry, and it also encouraged readers of the Mercure to abandon their passivity and become the creators of miniature riddles, those of their pseudonyms.

The belief that penetrating wit is the superior characteristic of the riddle-solver is expressed in the writings of the abbé Cotin, a prolific creator of enigmas in the period before the Mercure was founded in 1672. In his Lettre à Damis, which introduces his 1638 collection of Les Enigmes de ce temps, he claims that "les descriptions enigmatiques sont obscures par leurs métaphores et leurs continuelles allegories à ceux qui ne sont pas polis et intelligents; autrement elles sont tres-claires à qui sçavent le mot" (Cotin 33). He expresses a high opinion of his riddle-solving friends, but he does not neglect to shine the light of praise on himself: “Il semble qu’un Enigmatiste soit Poëte et Philosophe tout ensemble, et qu’il ait seul trouvé le secret de plaire et d’instruire que tant d’autres ont cherché inutilement” (Cotin 31). He traces the noble descent of the art of enigmas from Antiquity to his day, and he insinuates that the riddles somehow succeed where other genres have tried, with lesser success, to “plaire and instruire,” although he never specifies what one can learn from them. Not only does he ennoble the riddle in his Lettre à Damis by referring to it as a literary genre, he also attributes a nobler origin to it than Jaucourt does: while the latter gives it dubious Biblical roots, Cotin claims Greco-Roman precedents.

Of course, Cotin’s fulsome praise of the enigma would meet with grave opposition from certain critics, who could claim in turn that the flash of insight that gives one “le mot de l’énigme” parodies the process of understanding poetry to an absurd degree. For a reader to assume that the meaning of a poem can be unequivocally reduced to a single word, or sometimes to a single letter, is proof that she has only the most superficial grasp of literature.19

The question critics did not consider, however, is whether Cotin and his fellow énigmatistes were simply being facetious when extolling the riddles. Opponents describe the particularly irritating earnestness of the fans, but they perhaps did not take into account that the praise of the enigma could be as mock-sublime as the enigmas themselves.20 On the contrary, the lack of irony that they attributed to these fans made the latter seem unintelligent and therefore incapable of participating in literature. As Domna Stanton points out in her article “The Fiction of Préciosité and the Fear of Women,”21 the précieux language that we see caricatured in satire may well have never existed outside those works. The ridicule of préciosité, she claims, can be traced to the fear, among prominent male writers, of female usurpation of the “phallic order” of language. Following this line of reasoning, the same writers would deny the fans of word games in the Mercure any right to create or define literature, because they were too unsettled by the idea of women, bourgeois, and provincials -- traditionally objects of satire -- practicing their own form of humor, even in relatively innocuous forms.

Ridicule of préciosité and ridicule of the énigmes are, in fact, closely linked. The attacks on the énigmes are symptomatic of the general backlash against the influence of salons and their supposedly feminizing influence during the Ancien Régime, particularly since these games attained popularity in this setting. Faith Beasley, in Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-Century France, traces the transformation in the depictions of female-led literary assemblies from being glorified as tribunals of taste to being pushed aside into an obscure space in literary history.

Criticism of these female-led social circles continues into the eighteenth century, as one can see in the novels of the period. Even though the novelist Claude Crébillon celebrated frivolity, he still maintained an ambiguously disapproving tone in pointing out the follies of his petits-maîtres. In his 1734 novel L'Ecumoire, for example, he describes a gallant young man as skilled in all the trivial arts of pleasing: “c’était le plus beau danseur du monde, personne ne faisoit la révérence de meilleure grâce: il devinait toutes les énigmes, jouait bien tous les jeux [...]” (Crébillon 191). The mock-praise of this character shows us two opposing opinions, the ostensible one which values him for his capacity to amuse, and the other, which we readers understand as implicit criticism of his worth. In passages such as the ones above, one can see that even frivolous literature itself had inherited the prejudices of the erudites against the Mercure and its games.

In contrast to the light-hearted Crébillon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau unambiguously equates a male writer's adherence to a woman's salon to intellectual emasculation.22 If men and women socialize together, Rousseau warns in his Lettre à d'Alembert, the women will impose their langorous lifestyle, and sooner or later “les femmes nous rendent femmes.”23 The hostess, surrounded by her “sérail d'hommes,” not only saps their bodily strength by restraining their movements to her room, but she also weakens their minds by inspiring ephemeral, merely amusing forms of writing:

Imaginez quelle peut être la trempe de l’âme d’un homme uniquement occupé de l’importante affaire d’amuser les femmes [...] Nos talents, nos écrits se sentent de nos frivoles occupations; agréables, si l’on veut, mais petits et froids comme nos sentiments, ils ont pour tout mérite ce tour facile qu’on n’a pas grand’peine à donner à des riens. Ces foules d’ouvrages éphémères qui naissent journellement, n’étant faits que pour amuser des femmes, et n’ayant ni force ni profondeur, volent tous de la toilette au comptoir (Rousseau 160-61).

While Rousseau may refer here to a variety of minor genres created for women's amusement, the énigmes would surely be included in that category. In his opinion, these “riens,” instead of coexisting innocuously next to weightier works, actually contaminate serious writing with the style that is demanded of salon guests.

In some satirical texts, the feminizing influence of the énigmes bears part of the blame for the French reputation for frivolity. Boyer D’Argens, for example, depicts the degeneracy of Parisian life, and specifically the milieu of the so-called wits, in his 1736 epistolary novel Lettres juives:

Tout le monde y veut avoir de l’esprit: c’est le faible de la nation. On aime mieux passer pour fripon, que pour bête. Tel homme ne se soucie pas d’être regardé comme une personne dont les mœurs sont scandaleuses, qui serait au désespoir qu’on ne le crût pas en état de deviner les énigmes du Mercure galant, et de composer un madrigal.24

Boyer d'Argens, like many French authors of his time, refers to this stereotype of his own countrymen as inconstant, flighty effetes. The Querelle d’Homère in particular reveals the period's preoccupation with the “corruption of taste,” in Anne Dacier's words, which keep the French from attaining the true sublime in heroic poetry, for example. From this perspective, society games were a sign that the French were unable to devote themselves to serious things.

It would be interesting to know why critics and satirists referred to the enigmas as a source of shame, while they celebrated other genres that played with the contrast between high and low registers, such as the pastiche héroï-comique of Boileau and the travestissements of Scarron and Marivaux, to use Gérard Genette's terms.25 While the énigmatistes use some of the same techniques as Boileau, who depicts humble objects in ridiculously elevated language, the former receive far less praise from their contemporaries and later generations than did the author of Le Lutrin. Perhaps their reputation was tainted by the association with feminine society and with the particular wit that was valued there. Erica Harth remarks in Cartesian Women that the abbé de Pure, in la Prétieuse, assigns a specific kind of mediocre wit to women, which falls below the standards of true intellectual activity: “de Pure introduces esprit as what appears to be a middle term between learning and ignorance. Esprit, or natural wit, was supposed to be the particular virtue of salon women.”26 Neither strictly satirical nor clever enough to impress the learned elite, the énigmes, despite their popularity during their heyday, ended by being excluded from the world of erudite comic literature even in our era.

Judging from the acceptance we give now to the academy-imposed norms and the scant attention given to énigmes and other so-called précieux forms in the study of literature, one can see which of the two competing aesthetics won out in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, as Domna Stanton, Erica Harth, Faith Beasley, and other modern-day critics have proposed, we need to delve past the established history of ideas, specifically from the nineteenth century, to get a more accurate idea of the conflict between classicism and its rivals. Then we will be able to contemplate how the classical norms triumphed by crushing the “heresies” of writers such as Madeleine de Scudéry, Cotin, and of the readers of the Mercure, who had different ideas about what is beautiful and what is clever.

Perhaps the parable of the prototypical riddle-solver, Œdipus, can serve as a lesson to the ill-respected fans of the énigmes (after all, Beaugénie, in Boursault’s play, had claimed that his riddle far surpassed that of Sophocles). When presented with the Sphinx’s riddle about the creature who has 4, 2, and then 3 legs, Œdipus solves the enigma, whose answer is “man.” But this small success only brings about his downfall, since it allows him to take over the kingdom and fulfill his tragic fate. From the perspective of their opponents, one can imagine the overenthusiastic and undereducated lovers of énigmes, searching zealously for the response in order to take part proudly in what they think is a legitimate literary activity. Their efforts, however, only draw the crushing hostility of those who deny the literariness of these writings. For the fans of the énigmes, as for Oedipus, solving a riddle proves to be a small step for wisdom and a large plunge into folly.

University of Virginia


1In the preface to her edition of Charles Cotin's Enigmes de ce temps, Florence Vuilleumier-Laurens cites letters from Jean Chapelain and Guez de Balzac that attest to the popularity of énigmes in the social circles of the marquise de Rambouillet and of Valentin Conrart (Société des textes français modernes, 2003), ix-xi.

2The journal went through a number of alterations in its title; it was called Le Mercure galant from its inception in 1672 until 1714, then it became Le Nouveau Mercure from 1717 to 1724, and finally the Mercure de France from 1724 to 1791. The history of the Mercure is summarized in Le Mercure galant de Dufresny (1710-1714) ou le journalisme à la mode by François Moureau (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1982), 7-11.
For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to it as the Mercure in this article.

3 Bouts-rimés presented the following challenge: first we see a poem in which all words are blank except for the last word of every line:

____________________________ sage
____________________________ micmac
____________________________ trictrac
____________________________ cage
____________________________ age
____________________________ sac
____________________________ almanach
____________________________ village
____________________________ ail
____________________________ evantail
____________________________ oreille
____________________________ fourmy
____________________________ bouteille
____________________________ amy

The reader who takes up the challenge must write a coherent, correct, and if possible, witty, poem whose lines end with those words. Several such responses are printed in the November 1723 issue, including the following:

On verra supprimer les proverbes du sage,
L'usurier affamé negligeant son micmac,
User nonchalamment ses jours sur un trictrac,
Et mon chat dévoré d'un moineau dans sa cage.
La brillante jeunesse au plus beau de son age,
Fuira tous les plaisirs pour se vêtir d'un sac,
Un avare attentif sera sans almanach,
Et Paris passera pour un petit village.
On verra les Gascons haïr l'oignon & l'ail,
Une coquette en feu, briser son evantail,
De rage qu'un traitant ait baisé son oreille.
La mouche amassera comme fait la fourmi,
Un avaleur de vin quittera la bouteille,
Lorsque je cesserai de cherir mon amy.

The logogriph presents a riddle in verse, to which the answer is a single long word in which one can find the letters that make up smaller words with are the answers to other parts of the riddle.

4Le Mercure galant, Mai 1689, p. 306–07.

5René Bray, La Formation de la doctrine classique en France (Paris: Nizet, 1951).

6The term is used by Cotin in his Enigmes de ce temps (1638) Ed. Florence Vuilleumier-Laurens (Société des Textes Français Modernes, 2003).

7See Faith Beasley, Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-Century France: Mastering Memory. (Ashgate, 2006), 111.

8Mercure, 1672, tome 1, p. 11–13.

9Delphine Denis, La Muse galante: Poétique de la conversation dans l'œuvre de Madeleine de Scudéry (Paris: Champion, 1997), 248.

10Dominique Bouhours, Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (Paris: S. Mabre-Cramoisy, 1671), 42.

11Charles Batteux, Les Beaux-arts réduits à un même principe, vol. 2 (Paris: Durand, 1746), 120.

12It is difficult to ascertain what Beaugénie refers to in the last two lines about the double gender of the word. Either people were debating the gender of word pet, as they did with équivoque, or Beaugénie refers first to pet or vent (which are masculine words) and then to pétarade, which the 1694 Dictionary of the Academy assures us is feminine.

13Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, vol. 1 of The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

14Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde. Réflexions sur l’élégance et la politesse du style (Paris, 1695), 60.

15Nicolas Boileau. Satires (Paris: Société les belles lettres, 1952), 127.

16Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach, Le Christianisme Dévoilé (Londres, 1756) 263.

17 Boileau, however, did not escape the énigme trend entirely, since at least one riddle is attributed to him:

Du repos des humains, implacable ennemie,
J'ai rendu mille amants envieux de mon sort.
Je me repais de sang et je trouve la vie
Dans les bras de celui qui recherche ma mort.

answer: la puce
Nicolas Boileau, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: La Place, Sanchez, 1873), 221.

18Moureau 37, note 5.

19Stéphane Bikialo, in a linguistic analysis of énigmes, points out that although the unsolved riddle contains a multitude of possible meanings, finding the one true answer reduces the words to the function of simple denotation. He describes “deux parcours [...] un mouvement centrifuge, de prolifération des possibles, puis un mouvement centripète, de réduction” (Bikialo 11).

20Since opponents of énigmes objected to the mixture of high and low diction, or to the degradation brought about by their very popularity, one could compare their disapproval to early twentieth-century scorn of popular art or kitsch. But if the énigmatistes were fully aware of their clichéd poetical ornaments and forays into low diction, then they could be said, in modern terms, to be intentionally practicing a form of camp.

21 Domna Stanton, “The Fiction of Préciosité and the Fear of Women,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981) 128.

22See Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) for a discussion of Rousseau's resentment against the female-led salons.

23Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à d'Alembert in vol. 3 of Œuvres complètes (Paris: A. Houssiaux, 1852-1853) 159.

24Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens, Lettres juives (La Haye: Paupie, 1738), 82-83.

25Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré (Seuil, 1982).

26 Erica Harth, Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992), 38.


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