From Court to Street in Eighteenth-Century France
Carole F. Martin
During the session organized by the Society for Eighteenth-Century French Studies at the Eleventh ISECS Congress on the Enlightenment held at UCLA in August 2003, a number of prominent members of the audience called for initiatives to “reinvent” our profession. A reaction to the dominance of Spanish in foreign language instruction, the call for “reinvention” is also a response to the pressure by university administrations to model our programs on linguistic training to the detriment of literary studies. Involving a new emphasis on research in cultural history, a field that is reshaping the profile of the century away from its canonical works both in France and the U.S., the call for “reinvention” further aims to “rescue and rediscover” the Enlightenment in the post 9/11 era. The ambition is ultimately to reinvigorate the relationship between teaching and scholarship in French programs across the country. What follows is my personal attempt to address some of these issues, and to keep my specialization alive in the environment of a comprehensive state university.
A crucial moment in the formation of modern democracy, the eighteenth century should be taught as part of the undergraduate core requirements that define in most institutions the first two years of college. The following proposal describes a new course prompted neither by an on-going disciplinary revision nor the appropriation of a current intellectual or social topic of discussion. It responds instead to an alternative way of teaching outside the discipline in undergraduate programs that offer a core curriculum centered, in many universities, on the study of cultures as well as the promotion of hands-on experience.
The course embraces a broad audience of students, who, for the most part, have no previous knowledge of the period, and whose presumed majors are not always selected in the College of Liberal Arts but include disciplines from the College of Fine Arts and Communication, the College of Science, and the College of Education. In the university where I teach, like in many others, the core curriculum includes components from the Mathematics and Natural Sciences, the Arts and Humanities (with an emphasis on Literature and Philosophy), and Social Sciences requirements (emphasizing the study of History and Political Science). All of these fields can be introduced in a course focused on the eighteenth century, either because the discipline originated at that time as a systematic field of inquiry (the Natural Sciences, Modern Philosophy, and Political Science fall under this category), or because a series of major events from that period shaped the field (History, for instance, with a new definition of revolution, and Literature with the invention of the novel). If general education requirements are designed for students to acquire the cultural background and common foundation that are the marks of an educated person, one can easily see how a student of Chemistry or Physics could benefit from an understanding of classification and experimentation as principles established in the eighteenth century to define the parameters of modern science. Similarly, students of History and Government cannot find a better era to illustrate the move from autocratic rule to a democratic ideal, as they begin their own inquiries into the “meaning of history”. The study of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire to Kant, also lends itself to questioning, explaining and assessing our times, as well as providing an accessible introduction to most contemporary developments in continental philosophy. There are thus a number of ways in which to conceive a core course based in our discipline that would fulfill natural or social sciences components, and philosophy or literature requirements. The following is but one example designed for my school’s Humanities & Visual and Performing Arts Component. Given in the Spring 2002 under the aegis of the College of General Studies Honors Program with the intention of promoting interdisciplinary teaching, this course—From Court to Street in Eighteenth-Century France—also bridged the recurrent divide between canonical texts and popular genres, juxtaposing a wide range of works, whose relevance students experienced first-hand during a Spring Break field trip to Paris.
Taught in English, “From Court to Street” is an introductory course that surveys the cultural revolutions arising in eighteenth-century Paris; it offers a literary and art supplement to history courses that traditionally study Europe during the Old Regime. As such, it uses a variety of literary sources (memoirs, novels, plays, and essays), as well as seminal works in painting, architecture, and music, to explore how prevalent cultural paradigms shifted from Louis XIV’s Versailles to Revolutionary Paris. Going from Old Regime classics such as Louis de Saint-Simon’s Memoirs of Versailles, François Boucher’s or Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s royal commissions, on the one hand, to revolutionary iconography and festivals, on the other, this survey aims at providing students with a context for understanding the complex cultural transformations from which emerged many aspects of the modern world. Two central questions, as well as their reciprocal interaction, sustained this investigation: the transformation of class structure and the change in the nature and uses of representation that coincided with it.
Because of the course’s format and proposed public, I had to develop a pedagogical design that could both help me to select and organize specific works from the vast spectrum of cultural production in eighteenth-century France, and to capture my audience’s interest and imagination. As presumptuous as it is to attempt a description of Old Regime culture, it is nonetheless possible to isolate and emphasize some of its fundamental features, and I wanted to conduct this analysis in such a way that students could readily identify, characterize, and compare them. I chose to associate each of the cultural formations and prevailing trends that I intended to discuss (court society, social mobility, libertinage, enlightenment, reformism, and revolutionary ideology) with a character who would personify the traits specific to the topic under study. I thus defined six units respectively centered on the Courtier, the Parvenu, the Libertine, the Moralist, the Reformist, and the Polygraph (or scrivener). This design allowed me to choose readings, as well as other works, that would illustrate these figures’ modus vivendi and/or production. It also facilitated students’ involvement in and their understanding of ideas embodied in characters whose features could be thoroughly articulated and contrasted. Such analyses led to a wealth of comparative interpretations that were later used to give a fuller account of the dynamics of change and continuity affecting the century’s major cultural institutions and movements.
During Spring Break (after three of the six units were completed), I took my class of seventeen students and two supervisors to Versailles and Paris for an eight-day stay, in which each day’s visits were devoted to one of our characters and the surroundings he would have frequented. This field trip gave participants the opportunity not only to experience de visu some of the places and works discussed in class, but also to foster their ability to interrelate abstract and concrete knowledge, to synthesize narratives with actual encounters, to confront the material already presented with new facts, incurring a reorganization of what had been previously learned, and opening up questions to pursue in the second part of the semester. It helped students to develop in a more informed fashion the topic of their term paper, and to collect the relevant iconographic documentation they would need to illustrate their research.
Syllabus Units and Itinerary
• The Courtier: The first cultural model to which students were introduced was the representative of Court society and the milieu in which he circulated. Focusing on an exemplary courtier, the Duc de Saint-Simon as he appears in the Memoirs on his life at Versailles, we investigated both Court etiquette and the Palace architecture as signifiers of the Old Regime’s social order. The campus slide presentation devoted to the evolution of Versailles from Louis Le Vau’s early plans to Richard Micque’s addition of the Queen’s Hamlet in 1783 was complemented by two days spent in Versailles at the beginning of our trip.
Saturday March 9 • Arrival
at CDG (Paris) at 10:55 am
Sunday March 10 • Market
Notre Dame from 7:30 am to 9:30 am
• The Parvenu: We proceeded with the prototype of the upstart as he benefits from the early stages of social mobility described in Marivaux's novel Up from the Country. A Paysan parvenu, the hero progressively evolves from countryman to bourgeois de Paris. His discovery of the French capital also provided a model for the class’s survey of Parisian urbanism and development in the classical era. Again, a campus slide presentation was later complemented by a tour of Paris’s succession of royal squares from Henri IV’s Place des Vosges, Louis XIV’s Place des Victoires and Place Vendôme, to Louis XV’s Place de la Concorde (named Place de la Révolution under the Terror for the scaffold and guillotine of the executions). A visit to the Musée Carnavalet, devoted to the history of Paris, contextualized this itinerary through the city.
Tuesday March 12 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
• The Libertine: Our third figure of study was the ultimate incarnation of the courtier as he fell prey to a “decadent” life style, depicted in numerous works by the King's painters Boucher and Fragonard (a guest lecture by a colleague in Art History), as well as in Crébillon fils’s tale of seduction, The Wayward Head and Heart [Les Egarements du coeur et de l’esprit]. This reading was further illustrated by the visit to two Parisian Hôtels endowed with prestigious collections of eighteenth-century artifacts displayed in a private home manner: the Musée Jacquemart-André and the Musée Nissim de Camondo. A tour of Monceau’s and Bagatelle’s Folies (the fanciful gardens and pavilions on the city outskirts patronized by aristocrats) rounded off this evocation of libertinism.
Wednesday March 13 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
• The Moralist: Following the spread of the Enlightenment’s critique of the extravagance and unabating injustice of Court society, we turned to the omens of a "cultural revolution." Students first explored its emergence with Denis Diderot, who advocated such a revolution in his reviews of art exhibitions and his recurrent praise of the genre paintings by Jean-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Two slide presentations (one of which was given by our guest lecturer) illustrated the reading of Diderot’s Salon of 1765, in which his defense of genre painting and the representation of domesticity argued for a reversal in representational hierarchy. While in France, we then followed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s footsteps and discovered the rustic park of Ermenonville, the refuge the Marquis de Girardin would offer to the philosopher become herbalist. After a pilgrimage on the latter’s tomb, we visited his small house of Mont-Louis in nearby Montmorency, where, from 1757 to 1762, he wrote his best-selling novel in tandem with his major political works.
Thursday March 14 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
• The Reformist: Beaumarchais, author of the play The Marriage of Figaro, was the perfect example of a King's officer become pamphleteer. The examination of both his masterly career and play led us to discuss the social claims made on the government at the twilight of the Old Regime. Conversely, our analysis of the work’s operatic adaptation as Le Nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showed how a censorious regime could compel a shift of focus from politics to romance. In Paris, the Reformist’s route took us from the Louvre (the monarch’s official Parisian residence) to the Palais-Royal, rebuilt for the Duc de Chartres (Philippe Egalité) whose court was in open rivalry with the King’s, and for the pamphleteers who, by the 1770’s, were publishing their lampoons under the Duc’s arcades and protection. A dinner at Le Procope, where the philosophers and their disciples used to meet, brought the day to a close.
Friday March 15 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
• The Polygraph: To conclude our survey, the Panorama of Paris by the proto-sociologist Louis-Sébastien Mercier provided students with insight into the situation in Paris in the late 1780's. It also allowed us to discuss the impact of the proliferation of journalistic practices at a time of a rapidly escalating succession of events, and to put in context our review of revolutionary iconography, based on a collection of forty prints from 1787 to 1794 depicting, in a serious or caricatured style, the major stages of the French Revolution. In Paris, this panorama ended with the visits of the Conciergerie, the museum of the Revolution, the Pantheon, the church that was closed by the revolutionaries and reopened as the monument to the great men of the nation, and Notre-Dame, the symbol of France’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church under the auspices of Napoleon I: an event that put a “real” end to the siècle des lumières.
Saturday March 16 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
Sunday March 17 • Breakfast
at FIAP (included)
Reading and Writing Assignments
Because I wanted students to read the course’s selected texts in their entirety, so as to intervene freely, and occasionally lead, in class discussions, the required readings were limited to six works illustrative of each course unit and representative of different literary genres. From Saint-Simon’s vast Memoirs of Versailles, I excerpted the major passages that would allow us to discuss the Courtier’s use of portraiture and concept of history, a discussion that served as an introduction to the two central questions on which we would focus our semester-long conversation: representation and class. We then turned to Marivaux’s Up from the Country, the unachieved Bildungsroman of a young peasant on his way to becoming a Parisian Parvenu. Because the novel drew a parallel between social climbing and the successive discovery of places exemplifying Paris’s class structure, from the Pont-Neuf to the Comédie, and from a devout house to a pleasure pavilion, our commentary incorporated a comparison of the class-differentiated neighborhoods that we were to tour during our trip. This investigation continued with the reading of Crébillon fils’s libertine novel, The Wayward Head and Heart, the action of which is located in aristocratic Paris rather than Versailles or the capital’s bourgeois surroundings previously surveyed.
Once this virtual tour was completed, our readings and critiques moved from a focus on architecture and urban design to pictorial representation: just before going to Paris, students started Diderot on Art, a text they would be required to consult for finding at the Louvre the works that the philosopher criticized in his essays, especially in the pieces on Fragonard, Boucher, Chardin, and Greuze. Diderot’s analysis of genre painting also allowed us to tackle his parallel invention of the drame bourgeois and move from pictorial to theatrical representation. Back in the States, we continued with the comparative reading of Beaumarchais’s play, The Marriage of Figaro, and Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Mercier’s Panorama of Paris, with its vivid depiction of the streets of Paris and the class medley defining the pre-revolutionary years, concluded the selections while offering a stark contrast to the spectacle of Versailles as described by Saint-Simon in our first unit.
Students' participation and critical stance were a major component of the course. Each session devoted to the discussion of a reading illustrative of one of our six figures began with a debate launched by two or three students, who had prepared their own answers to questions listed in the syllabus regarding the text under consideration. These questions addressed varied topics, ranging from literary to social constructions, from concepts and themes specific to one author (or one period) to comparisons between authors (or successive moments in the century). Debates on the structure of portraiture and the conception of history in Saint-Simon, for instance, helped students to understand the Courtier as a socio-cultural construct. In a parallel fashion, discussions of class structure and social mobility prepared them to assess the rise of new heroes and characters in Marivaux, Beaumarchais or Mercier.
Period-specific questions were also raised. The libertine ideal of amour-goût was introduced precisely for its fundamental difference from contemporary notions of love, whereas the encyclopaedists’ definition of genius was examined for the impact it still carries today. Likewise, the concept of spectacle as applied to the revolutionary event, especially during the Terror, was included for the relevance it had to recent history, notwithstanding the controversy this parallel could create. After these initial presentations by selected students, the topics were opened to general class discussion for every participant to share in the task of constructing valid interpretations of the course's material. I, myself, was responsible for four lectures on art and architectural history, material to which students might not have had direct access, while a colleague in Art History gave two talks on painting.
I emphasized to participants that the figures were in most respects artificial constructions, pedagogical and learning devices conceived to facilitate the presentation of a curriculum, and as such they led themselves to critique. While the Courtier and the Parvenu, or the Libertine and the Moralist were expressly constructed as opposites, the pairing of the Courtier and the Libertine, and of the Moralist and the Reformist, composed a radicalization of previously studied traits. The figure of the Polygraph was selected rather than the Revolutionary, which would have made an obvious counterpart to the Reformist, because of the lack of availability of texts. Revolutionary writings have yet to be assembled and translated in a collection accessible to students, and I did not want them to learn about a revolutionary icon just as they could in a history course. I wanted them to read from the figure itself, or at least from the vantage of a contemporary who could give a first-hand rendering of the environment in which this figure evolved. To that effect, the crucial role of the press and the Polygraph during the Revolution offered an appropriate alternative. Still, available translations were few and far between, with the exception of Mercier. To his description of pre-revolutionary Paris (with readings centered on class structure), I added a summary of his post-revolutionary Tableaux, as well as a brief review of Restif de la Bretonne’s parallel series of Nuits de Paris. Completed by a two-part lecture on revolutionary prints, the discussion on the collapse of the Old Regime thus focused not so much on the events themselves as it did on the representation of these events. And since the notion of representation had been emphasized all along, to end our conversation on the Revolution as spectacle proved a consistent choice.
The selection of the Moralist (rather than the self-evident Philosophe) also came from my decision to focus on representation: side-stepping the Pandora’s box of the philosophical trinity Voltaire-Rousseau-Diderot, I introduced the Enlightenment by way of a discussion on Diderot’s moralization of the pictorial and theatrical scene. Indeed, although we paid homage to both Voltaire and Rousseau during our trip, I did not want to concentrate on their overwhelming roles in the century. For the figures to become representative of a modus vivendi, they had to remain detached from the fame of writers as mythified as the former pair, while capturing the attention through accessible works of various genres that would further open onto interdisciplinary interpretations.
Given the artificial nature of the figures, many others could have been constructed. In fact, one of the criticisms that was made when I submitted “From Court to Street” to this competition was that its description read as very male-centric. It is true that all the authors selected were male, although the corresponding figures themselves were not presented as either male or female. Gender issues were discussed but never became, like the notion of class, an overarching theme. And yet, most of the texts we studied posited a formal equivalence between gender and class to the point that, when gender construction rather than class structure appeared as a major topic in the operatic adaptation of The Marriage of Figaro, the shift in focus came as no surprise. Still, I wonder how different the course would have been if I had chosen Mme de Sévigné instead of Saint-Simon, Mme Riccoboni instead of Marivaux, Laclos instead of Crébillon (with Mme de Merteuil as the Libertine, and L’Education des femmes as a background reading), Mme de Genlis as a Moralist, Mme Roland as a Reformer, and Olympe de Gouges as a Revolutionary. Apart from the fact that I might have had difficulties in finding acceptable translations, I believe that, given these writings, the emphasis might have shifted from social structure and representation (one way to introduce the notion of democracy) to gender constraints and transgressions, education and the theory of rights (another way of tackling the democratic ideal).
The students’ written work was considered a continuation of the critique begun in the classroom, and it was assessed both for its consistency and originality. Although independent reading and writing were clearly expected, collaboration and feedback from fellow students were also encouraged. In the first part of the course, there were two short essay assignments that consisted in 1) developing notes taken during the debates on Saint-Simon and the lecture on Versailles into a coherent three-page paper, and 2) outlining the characteristics of the Parvenu still in use today to describe social climbing. There was a take-home project scheduled at mid-term for which students had to do a comparative study of two of the three figures examined in class—the Courtier, the Parvenu, and the Libertine—emphasizing the notion of transition from one figure to the next. Students did not need to write while in France, but had to collect documentation for their previously chosen and approved term paper topic. Some kept extensive notes, most acquired books and other material relevant to their final writing assignment: a 7-8 page reconstitution, as precise and documented as possible, of a historical day or place that would best represent their own appreciation of one of the six sub-cultures presented in the semester. They could choose to constitute their dossier on topics such as one of the influential Salons, or Cafés of the era, the circumstances of the first publication or performance of one of the masterpieces of the century, a single event like Rousseau’s flight from Montmorency in 1762, the defining moments brought by Louis XIV’s death, or by the prise de la Bastille, or again one of the monuments representative of a specific legacy of the French Enlightenment. Their project had to be composed of four parts: 1) a narrative or description that left room for dramatization or creative writing, and could be inspired by “on site writing,” 2) a scrapbook for visual and material illustrations, 3) an interpretation highlighting their critical stance and underlining the relevance of the subject in today’s world, and 4) a bibliography that could not be Web-based. For all the essays, I would offer guidance, supervision, and opportunities to rewrite drafts in progress before final submission.
When the course evaluations were distributed at the end of the semester, 94.5% of the students gave the scale’s best mark to the course materials, including books and presentations. Only one student differed, thereby confirming how well these readings and discussions had worked. They contributed to an exceptional range of class debates on the influence of the eighteenth century on our contemporary way of living, thinking, disseminating information, and challenging traditions.
Conceived as seminars in which both instructors and students can devise and test experimental course designs, Honors courses have an enrollment limited to seventeen. At least thirty-four students had pre-registered in my course, before it was considered closed half an hour after pre-registration had begun. Among these were both priority students who participated actively in the Honors Program and had an excellent GPA, and traditional students. All had lined up very early to pre-register in person, at which time they also had to fill a form asking three questions: were they interested in taking a trip to Paris during Spring Break as an optional part of the course? Would they still enroll if the field trip were mandatory, and would they be willing to pay a supplementary fee of $ 300 toward the trip’s expenses? Answers to these questions were critical for establishing selection criteria: I wanted to have the full class on the trip (making it mandatory) and everybody sufficiently engaged to devote both their spring break and an additional $ 300 fee to this course. Although not prohibitive, the fee guaranteed a level of responsibility on the students’ part. With the help of these data, a definitive list and a waiting list were completed. A couple of students from the first one eventually dropped before the beginning of the term, making room for the individuals at the top of the second list. When the semester finally started, the class was a good mix of Honors and non-Honors students, about half of who had had French at various levels of difficulty.
The total cost of the journey for nine days was $ 1000 per person, including airfare, hotel both in Versailles and Paris (with breakfast and one meal included), most touring fees, and the rental of a bus for a day trip to Ermenonville and Montmorency. Since each student contributed only $ 300, the rest of the money had to come from institutional support, mainly from the Office of Study Abroad (an international fee of $ 3 is added to the university’s registration fees to provide scholarships for study abroad). The same office also gave me some logistical support by handling bills and the necessary forms students had to sign before they could take a field trip. My own expenses were covered by the department in which I teach. The Assistant Director of the Honors Program, who joined me to supervise students during the trip, was financed by the College of General Studies in which the program is located.
Remarks on Itinerary
As the itinerary above indicated, the stay was carefully planned to include day long visits to sites representative of each figure, supplemented by ample commentaries on my part, especially on the urban development of Paris between the early seventeenth and late eighteenth century. My comments also focused on connecting what we were learning from the various guided tours with previous information acquired in class, and with coursework remaining to be covered. We had at least one conference-like tour each day, the topics of which were not only interrelated, but also instrumental in helping students to take a comparative approach. Comparisons made in situ included the distinct concepts of nature emanating from the Folies of Monceau, Bagatelle, and Ermenonville; Rousseau’s quest for a new social bond, both in his existence and in the works he wrote at Mont-Louis, and the sudden appeal of genre painting to a philosopher like Diderot; or again the Revolution’s heroes as glorified by the Pantheon in contrast to its martyrs commemorated at the Conciergerie. If the figures first appeared to be artificially isolated from their context for the sake of analysis in the classroom, the trip to Paris allowed us to recontextualize our discussions and consider actual interactions, evolutions, oppositions, and transitions between each unit and the different examples given to illustrate them. Partly because my own analyses were supplemented by those of our guides, who were providing fresh points of view with each new lecture, on-site instruction proved extremely rich. The guides were for the most part excellent and, since the students were better prepared to listen and interact than your usual group of tourists, the former were also very responsive to questions and remarks, often prolonging their presentations to two to three hours. There were only two free afternoons: one on Monday to get acquainted with Paris after the weekend spent in Versailles, and the other on Friday after a conference at the Louvre, where we could stay to visit the permanent collections. At the time of the trip, the class was reading Diderot’s Salon of 1765 and most students took advantage of their visit to the museum to see the works discussed by the philosopher.
I would definitely recommend starting the field trip in Versailles. Not only does it make sense chronologically, but the full visit, encompassing the Château, both Trianons, and the Hamlet, also gives participants a concrete idea of the progression to be developed in depth during the stay in Paris. In addition, compared to the layered character of the French capital, the two neighborhoods on each side of the Château, the Quartier Notre-Dame and the Quartier Saint-Louis respectively, provide students with a very coherent image of a seventeenth-century urban setting and its eighteenth-century counterpart. Given the small scale of these areas, they feel at ease to continue their exploration alone, to enjoy other sites and pursue daily life activities on their own. According to the evaluation of the trip that I collected afterwards, other must sees included the Louvre, for which I highly recommend taking advantage of the lectures offered by extremely well-trained guides; the voie royale from the Place des Vosges to the Place de la Concorde, retracing the evolution of urban planning from the seventeenth-century area of Le Marais to the eighteenth- century Faubourg Saint-Honoré. And among less visited sites, my students cited the Musée Jacquemart-André, Mont-Louis, as well as Ermenonville, Rousseau’s perfect and rarely seen last refuge, whose guide was also quite an extraordinary lecturer.
The students’ response to the trip was enthusiastic. The only
criticism concerned the tightness of the itinerary, especially on the
day of our arrival. In fact, although they had requested to see the play
at the Montansier, a gorgeous example of a late eighteenth-century theatre
inaugurated by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 1777, most students
lost the struggle against the fatigue of travel! Apart from this, I wouldn’t
change anything in the above itinerary, but for obvious reasons of availability.
It is nevertheless imperative to mention from the beginning, and to reiterate
prior to departure, both the intense intellectual and physical demands
associated with such a trip. As a student put it, my priority was “to
enable them to experience all of the aspects of French society that
they had studied. She wanted us to enjoy the trip, which we did, but
wanted us to be constantly learning.”
III. The Libertine
VI. The Polygraph
I gave four lectures for the Beaux-Arts section of the course, one on Greuze for which I used slides from the university slide library, one on Versailles for which most of the images came from my personal collection, one on Paris’s urban development, and one on Revolutionary iconography, for which all slides were mine. My colleague in Art History who lectured on Boucher, Fragonard, and Chardin brought slides both from the school and his own collections. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for specific lists of images, or any other information about this course.