domingo, 27 de septiembre de 2015



A few months ago, WikiLeaks’ publication of confidential cables from American embassies around the world inspired a mock news item headlined “Sarkozy Admits French Language a Hoax.” According to this report, France’s diplomatic missives were revealed to have been written in English, leading the French president to confess that “the French really speak English, except in the presence of the British.” He went on to explain that the French language “was in fact complete gibberish,” invented by William the Conqueror’s troops during their invasion of England in order to “seem a bit more exotic” to the locals.

Whatever its humor value, this absurdist scenario underscores the degree to which English has eclipsed French as the international idiom of choice. With his magisterial study, “When the World Spoke French,” Marc Fumaroli harks back to a time when the situation was exactly the reverse. In the 18th century, he shows, “the international community of the learned” tended “to speak, write and publish mostly in French.” Whether they hailed from Russia or Prussia, Sweden or Spain, Austria or America, the Enlightenment’s best minds gravitated to French out of their shared reverence for both the matchless sophistication of the French art de vivreand the spirited intellectual exchanges of the Parisian salon.
To Fumaroli, an eminent scholar of French classical rhetoric and a member of the Académie Française, the adoption of the French language necessarily entailed the absorption of a whole system of cultural values. Like the Ciceronian Latin favored by the intellectuals of the Renaissance, 18th-century French “was a language in itself inconvenient, difficult, aristocratic and literary,” inseparable from “abon ton in manners, from a certain bearing in society, and from a quality of wit, nourished on literature, in conversation.” Notwithstanding the radical role it would eventually play in the French and American Revolutions, the language of Enlightenment liberalism and universalism paradoxically evinced the finest qualities of the French nobility: cleverness, leisure, cultivation and charm.
Duly associating Frenchness with class privilege, the Francophile king Frederick the Great of Prussia pointedly spoke his native German only to stable-boys and horses. In a similar vein, Fumaroli notes approvingly that “the French of the Enlightenment” remained “precise and lively” even in the speeches of the militant regicide Maximilien Robespierre, “whose bearing was impeccable, whose hair was always freshly powdered, whose diction and manners were those of a courtier.” Unabashed about the elitism of this view, Fumaroli explains that speaking French was “an initiation into an exceptional fashion of being free and natural with others and with oneself. It was altogether different from communicating. It was entering ‘into company.’ ”

And what a company! Conceived as “a portrait gallery of foreigners conquered by Enlightenment France,” Fumaroli’s book provides biographical essays about a diverse and fascinating cast of characters. Some, like Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin, are already renowned as political leaders and Francophiles. Others, like Francisco de Goya and Lord Chesterfield, are famous but not especially for their French connections. Still others are more or less unknown on every count. This book, however, depicts them all as wonderfully distinct individuals — real people whose eclectic interests, messy love lives and oddball personalities square ill with the lofty philosophical abstractions “the Enlightenment” so often calls to mind. Fumaroli’s Enlightenment is, first and foremost, a wild and woolly human drama, its players every bit as multifaceted (and flawed) as those making headlines today.
Take Charlotte-Sophie d’Aldenburg, Countess of Bentinck, born to a branch of the Danish royal family and educated entirely in French (though she never visited Paris). Until now, history has remembered her mainly as one of the many grandes dames who corresponded with Voltaire. In Fumaroli’s account, the countess emerges as a lovable sourpuss (“I have a contrary spirit, which makes me a disagreeable conversationalist. . . . I am tired of speaking ill of myself”); an incisive critic of Rousseau; a keen scientist who knew her way around a microscope and a telescope; a hopeless romantic who scandalized staid Protestant Northern Europe by cheating on her husband with one of her cousins; and an irrepressible thrill seeker who, as Catherine the Great wrote admiringly, “rode like a cavalryman, . . . danced whenever she chose, sang, laughed, capered about like a child, though she must have been well over 30.”
Like most of the tableaux in his gallery, Fumaroli’s portrayal of Aldenburg supports his claim about the “unique alliance of intelligent power and insolent joie de vivre” that earned the French language so many devotees. For this very reason, though, reading his subjects’ “French” texts, appended to each chapter, proves a somewhat unsatisfying exercise, despite Richard Howard’s characteristically able translation. (“When the World Spoke French” originally appeared in 2001 as “Quand l’Europe Parlait Français.”) For example, Fumaroli lauds the “polished” French style Frederick the Great honed in his correspondence with Voltaire. Yet almost by definition, the Gallic esprit of the Prussian’s prose is undetectable in such lines as: “I am deeply vexed to be the Saturn of the planetary heaven in which you are the sun. What is to be done?”
But Frederick’s own letter does not contain the clunky accidental rhyme (sun/done), and the awkwardness of “the planetary heaven in which you are the sun” obscures the alexandrine — the melodious 12-syllable metrical line proper to French poetry and drama — in the original. Quite literally, the poetry of Frederick’s French is lost in translation. So too is the significance of his Saturn/sun quip, a sly evocation of Voltaire’s “Micromégas” (1752) — a story in which the eponymous hero travels to Saturn and debates a local philosopher about the merits and properties of the sun.
Here, as in much of this densely erudite book, an explanatory note would have been helpful. Such references abound not only in Fumaroli’s protagonists’ writing but in his own, as when he says that Ben Franklin and a lady friend exchanged “innocent caresses, like Julie and Saint-Preux at Clarens.” Or when he writes that a friend acting as an intermediary between King Stanislaw II of Poland and an alluring duchess behaves “like Vautrin, arranging Lucien de Rubempré’s amours with the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and his marriage with Clotilde de Grandlieu.”
These statements presume a level of familiarity with the French literary canon that I, as a professor of French literature, would be thrilled to find in my compatriots but seldom do. Fumaroli, bless his heart, remains hopeful: “An optimist, I am led to believe by experience that the number of people in the present-day world capable of a real conversation in French (who are necessarily also real readers and owners of a library) has actually increased” and diversified since the 18th century. English may now function as the go-to language in commerce, technology and geopolitics. But according to Fumaroli, the old-school sophistication of French still holds sway among a small, if obscure, international elite. “It is,” he concludes, “in this clandestine worldwide minority . . . that today resides, . . . unknown to the majority of the French, the life and future of their irreplaceable idiom, qualified as a literary language and the language of ‘good company.’” For those looking to join this latter-day “banquet of enlightened minds,” “When the World Spoke French” is an excellent place to start.

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