Tuesday, August 7, 2018

excerpt #1: Montesquieu

Alfred Bendiner, Coffee (1936)

Some months ago I read The Persian Letters (1721), Montesquieu's seminal faux-naïf epistolary novel about expatriates from Isfahan settling in Paris and trying to figure out French society. It is at once a vehicle for the author's humanist beliefs, a series of satirical episodes, and an uncomfortable cautionary tale about patriarchy. What we'll be looking at today are some passages from the letters written by the character Rica, who of all the emigres goes the furthest in assimilating to French society and is the most eager to explore the city, converse with the locals, and issue sardonic reports on what he discovers. (To give credit where it's due, the edition from which these were stol'n was translated by Margaret Mauldon.)

In the following excerpt, substitute in your mind the coffee shop wits debating Homer with YouTubers, bloggers, and comments-section dwellers arguing about video games. The academics and students who "live on obscure reasoning" in the final paragraph can still be academics and students; just imagine they are dressed differently.
Coffee is widely drunk in Paris: there are a great many public establishments where it is served. In some of these establishments news is disseminated; in other, people play chess: there is one place where coffee is prepared in such a manner as to sharpen the wits of those who drink it; at any rate, of those who emerge from there, not a single one fails to be convinced that he is four times cleverer than he was upon entering.
But what shocks me about these wits is that they give no service to their country, but fritter away their talents on childish things; for instance, when I arrived in Paris I found them all worked up over the most trivial dispute one could imagine: it concerned the reputation of an ancient Greek poet, whose land of birth and year of death have remained a matter of conjecture for two thousand years. Both sides admitted he was an excellent poet: it was simply a question of the degree of excellence to be attributed to him. Everyone believed his own estimate the best, but among these bestowers of reputation, some thought the poet better than did others; that was the quarrel. It was very heated, for the two parties exchanged, with great cordiality, such crude insults and acidulous witticisms that I found the style of the dispute no less amazing than its subject. If anyone, I thought to myself, were foolish enough to appear before any of these defenders of the Greek poet and attack the reputation of some worthy citizen, he would undoubtedly be challenged; and I believe that this touchy fervour over the reputation of the dead would be kindled into a real conflagration in defence of the living; be that as it may, I added, may God protect me from ever drawing upon myself the enmity of these critics of a poet whom two thousand years in the tomb have been unable to defend against such implacable hatred: at the moment they beat the air, but what would happen if their fury were fuelled by the presence of an enemy? 
Those whom I have just described to you argue in the vernacular, and one should not confuse them with certain other disputants, who employ a barbaric tongue [Latin] which seems somehow to add to the fury and obstinacy of the combatants; there are places [ecclesiastical colleges] where one finds a kind of dense, black confusion of such people; they feed on fine distinctions; they live on obscure reasoning and false inferences; that occupation, whose devotees ought to be starving, does nevertheless yield a livelihood.
On a related note, substitute the following reference to a sixteenth-century quarrel over Latin pronunciation for the pointless academic controversy of your choice.
The University of Paris is the eldest, and very elderly, daughter of the kings of France, for she is more than nine hundred years old; consequently, she is occasionally confused. 
I've been told that some time ago she had a tremendous dispute with some scholars over the letter Q, which she wanted them to pronounce like a K. The dispute became so extremely heated that some people were stripped of their possessions; the Parlement had to settle the argument; it issued a solemn decree granting permission to all subjects of the king of France to pronounce that letter as they preferred. It was a fine thing to see the two most respected assemblies in Europe occupied in deciding the fate of a letter of the alphabet.
Next: pretend the two speakers aren't talking about hobnobbing in the salons, but discussing how to get more likes, mentions, and retweets. Perhaps replace "witticisms" and the like with "memes."
'I don't know why it is, but everything's turning against me: it's more than three days since I've said anything to help my reputation; and I've found myself included in conversations just anyhow, without being paid the slightest attention...I must say, the reputation of being a wit is very difficult to maintain; I don't know how you have managed it.' 
'I've had an idea...let's work together on being witty; we'll team up to to do it...I'll recite some verses of mine, and you'll say: "I was there when he composed them; it was at a supper, and he barely gave them a moment's thought;" you and I will often make fun of each other, and people will say: "Just look at how they attack each other, and defend themselves; they don't spare themselves; let's see how he'll get out of this——marvellous!——what a quick wit!"...We'll need to buy certain books, anthologies of witticisms for the use of those who aren't witty, but would like to be thought so; it all depends on having models; I want to see us, at the end of six months, capable of holding an hour-long conversation absolutely brim-full of witty remarks. But we will have to be attentive to one thing: to making certain our witticisms stay current; it's not sufficient to say something witty, it must be published, and circulated, and disseminated everywhere; otherwise, it's a waste of time, and I must admit there's nothing so depressing as seeing a fine thing one has said expire in the ear of the fool who hears it. It's true that there is, frequently, a compensation, in that we also make stupid remarks which are likewise not recognized; that's the only thing we have to console us on such occasions. So, my friend, that's how to go about it; you do what I tell you, and I promise you a seat at the Academy before six months are out; in other words, you won't have to work for long, because you can then abandon the study of the art; you'll be a wit no matter what you do...'
I would have posted this sooner, but the considerations enumerated in this post from June left me confounded and vacillating.

It is easy to compare superficialities, and tempting to admit observations of surface-level similarities as evidence of structural parallels—as laymen and natural philosophers alike once did in deeming corals aquatic plants. In the cases Montesquieu illustrates and the modern parallels your correspondent has suggested, the continuity between the culture and institutions of eighteenth-century Paris and the modern West ensures some degree of overlap in the contingencies that produced the behaviors of the Parisian café dwellers and the partisans posting invective comments on YouTube. But we'd be careless to take this shallow (but entertaining) exercise a step farther and make a statement like "people haven't changed in 300 years" or presume a manifestation of universality in these distinct but consonant expressions of socialized silliness. To corroborate the first claim, we'd have to examine the processes in the seventeenth-century and twenty-first-century social environments that sculpted the behaviors observed in each, establish an extensional identity (or at least a congruence) between these behaviors, and prove the same of the occasions in which they are emitted and reinforced. Verifying beyond doubt the second assumption stated above would necessitate an exhaustive study of every particular social environment that ever existed in the world.

Both are obviously impossible, and I can't begin to guess the methodology by which we'd abstract compatible data from the Parisian salons of yore and their pocket-sized digital simulacra for analysis. But it would be fun to watch some tenured researcher give it a shot, and to see how he goes about testing his hypotheses in the laboratory.

Sorry, Gary Larson

None of this should be taken to mean that foolishness is a subject about which we can learn nothing through casual observations from the field, however.

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