Issue #72 June 2024

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France, Part II

Florine Stettheimer, Costume design (Procession: Zizim of Persia, Agnes of Bourganeuf, the Unicorn, and Pierre d’Aubusson) for artist's ballet "Orphée of the Quat-z-arts", (c.1912)

This is the second part of an open-ended series exploring currents of not-all-that-serious thought running through the Enlightenment, such as those associated with Saint-Évremond and the Knight of Méré. It is modelled primarily but not exclusively on Pierre Bayle’s Diverse Thoughts on the Comet (1683).

3. Évremond and Ancient Poetry

I suggested, in reflecting on how to continue these Diverse Thoughts, that going through the As and Bs of libertine ideas before getting to the Js of Jesuits and Jansenists was the clear path. Those were just words, however, so let us skip to W. My dear Ludvík Vaculík–it would be madness to start with an actual 17th Century French libertine–wrote an article in 1986 entitled “Words…” that began:

“Once again I’ve reached an impasse with my writing: what good is it doing anyone? What good is it doing me, for that matter? It doesn’t help to solve anything, I can’t see that it affects anything at all. That is why I am once again tempted to give it up and later, after a useful pause, perhaps take up something else.” (117)

A sensible and honest position, I must say. We have to be careful, though, as the meaning of “honest” has evolved a great deal over the centuries. In a way, given how key the concept was for 17th Century libertines, this entire exploration can be viewed as an attempt to get to the bottom of just how it was used at the time.

As the “once again” indicates, Vaculík did tend to go on, putting thoughts in a form that could be and were shared. Yet he was conscious that what he was doing was not terribly agreeable, in Méré’s sense that it was not a pleasant face of “a great stock of spirit or merit.” Was the limited writing and underground publishing Vaculík was able to do during Czechoslovakia’s normalized socialism period–activities that changed nothing about his or the broader situation–of any value?

Much libertine thought was skeptical about our ability to change our situation in any meaningful way. Agreeableness was a form of making do; using what abilities we do have to divert ourselves from our miseries. Writing can be a diversion and so provide some value. Only, certain types are more effective than others. “Words…” was included in a collection of articles entitled A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator. The collection’s titular article recounts a cup of coffee Vaculík had with his interrogator in 1977 during a session where he was asked vague and leading questions like, “what is your opinion…of the way the Western press…is misusing the whole affair…for its slanderous campaign against Czechoslovakia?” (27)

“A crisp winder afternoon was advancing behind the bars from the White Mountain towards the darkness. My Lieut-Colonel was standing by the window, his hands behind his back. From the courtyard came the sound of women’s voices as female prisoners took their exercise.

“Look, Mr. Vaculík,” he said with a smile I could not see from where I was sitting, “I know you’ll put all this into one of your articles…”

“I expect so, if I’m given half a chance.”

He was silent for a while. Then:

“And you’ll call it: ‘A Cup of Coffee with the Interrogator’.”

I almost fell off the chair. It was no use–they knew everything.” (32)

Vaculík of course sent a copy of the article to his Lieut-Colonel once it was written. While his texts were not bereft of agreeableness thanks to his way with words, they still focused on what vexed him. Arguably, he could have written poetry or high fantasy completely divorced from his situation. Assuming for a moment that putting an end to his scribbling was not a realistic option, would it not have been more honest to write something that more completely took him out of himself?

Évremond touched on disconnected words in his opinions on ancient poetry.

“The century of Augustus was one of excellent poets, I admit it; but it does not follow from that that it was one of well-made minds. Poetry demands a particular genius that is not all that accommodating to good sense. Sometimes it is the language of the gods, sometimes it is the language of the mad, rarely that of an honest man. It is pleasing in fictions, in figures, always beyond the reality of things; and it is this reality that can satisfy a reasonably healthy comprehension.” (“À M. Le maréchal de Créqui” 701)

Elsewhere, he recommended partaking in pleasures that resulted in “evading the consciousness of one’s own ills.” (“Sur les plaisirs, à M. le comte D’Olonne” 656) That notion, along with the stereotypical idea of libertines as unbridled hedonists, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It would be difficult to be better than “excellent” and further detached from one’s ennui than “beyond the reality of things.” Without “good sense,” it is nonetheless incompatible with the libertine ideal of honesty. Effective diversions then are not the whole story.

Good sense is being aware of and sensitive to context, particularly social context. Évremond’s praise for Petronius gives us a sense of this:

“Petronius is admirable everywhere, in the purity of his style, in the delicateness of his sentiments; but what surprises me more, is this great ease with which he ingeniously gives us all sorts of characters. Terence is perhaps the author of Antiquity who best enters into people’s natures. I would say rather that he has too little range; and that all his talent is limited to making valets and the aged talk well, a greedy father, a debauched son, a slave, a type of Brighella. That is to what Terence’s capacity extends. Do not expect of him either gallantry or passion; or the sentiments for the discourse of an honest man. Petronius of a universal spirit finds the genius in all the professions, and adapts himself as it pleases him to a thousand different natures. If he introduces an orator, he takes on the air and style so well, that one would say that he has declaimed all his life.” (“Jugement sur Sénèque, Plutarque et Pétrone” 672-3)

There are three points worth making. First, the compliment “admirable everywhere” follows Méré’s “always pleases” model, discussed in Thought 2. The merit, while universal, appears in myriad forms. In fact, it is precisely this adaptability to context, character, nature, and so on, that allows it to be generally agreeable. Augustine era poetry was excellent and did please, it simply could not always please because it was agnostic to the context of different, particularly human, natures. It could be appreciated, as Évremond did, but fell short of the ideal.

Second, the passage sets the honest man as one of these natures and not as above the fray. The same qualities, the same “universal spirit,” needed to be an honest man were those required to write or perform one. Pulling it off may “not come from a simple superficialness or an insubstantial appearance,” that does not make it any less an appearance. (Méré 75)

Performance here is subtly different from playing a role. Montaigne, in his essay “Of the Inequality Between Us,” made what has become a rather famous differentiation between the magistrate and the man. He used the metaphor of the theatre to illustrate the point that the role of the magistrate, like that of the king, was a public facade. If we “look at him behind the curtain, he is nothing but a common man.” Méré’s noble Conversations partner took a similar metaphorical turn when agreeing to an observation by our enlightened Knight, “but honest people are not voluntarily actors.” Performance was having the insights of a magistrate while always being the man; having the wisdom of Socrates without growing the beard:

“I very much put the smallest things you tell me of Socrates at the forefront of my heart, and I hope that one of these days one will hear me cite the divine Plato, after the example of a Lady who has a great deal of spirit and who takes pleasure in talking about everything.” (9)

Finally, Évremond’s take on Petronius as a writer was solely based on his satirical novel, the Satyricon. It had to be; there was nothing else. Besides the book being just the sort of thing a 17th Century French libertine might write, it was not poetry. Évremond, like the vast majority of libertines of his day, was sophisticated enough to consider works in light of the criteria of their time. 17th Century poetry was generally neither the “language of the gods” nor that “of the mad,” so he did not force an anachronistic comparison. While the sort of study and meditation that undermined one’s sociability was avoided in the libertine world, a fair amount of cultural refinement was expected.

Good sense, more specifically, is the recognition that times and tastes change. It is the ability to profit from those who have come before without seeing in them the very model of modern creation:

“There is no one who has more admiration than I have for the works of the Ancients. I admire the design, the economy, the elevation of spirit, the range of knowledge; but the change of religion, of government, of mores, of manners, have been so significant in the world, that it is necessary for us to enter into the taste and the genius of the century we are in.


We conclude that Homer’s poems will always be masterpieces: not in any way models. They form our judgment; and the judgment will regulate the dispositions of present things. (“Sur les poèmes des Anciens” 746, 751)

There is tension here. The only people who had the education and time to be familiar with the Ancients were those associated with nobility, liberal professions and the like. They were the intelligentsia of the period. If they had sufficient judgment to recognize that times and taste change, and so did not take those that came before as a sacred or quasi-sacred model, they would have also been aware that such changes were not always for the better and did not lend themselves equally to agreeableness.

It was a struggle for 17th Century libertines, as they risked–and many were subject to–persecution for their ideas and words. For some, like Dassoucy and Théophile de Viau, that persecution was central to their work. No matter how much taste and genius one can bring to bear, however, there are limits to how pleasant prison can be presented. As the intelligentsia, they had something to lose and risked it for, in the grand scheme of things, not that much. Pessimistically, they contributed a drop of agreeableness into an ocean of dogmatism, ignorance and superstition.

Vaculík pondering whether his writing was really worth anything was honest: it was precisely what someone in an advantaged enough position to have the good sense to weigh their words would ask themself. The position was nonetheless ephemeral, echoing “Fontenelle’s rose, who was saying that in the memory of roses no one had ever seen a gardener die.” (Diderot 367) It is only in retrospect that one can see the libertine world developed by Évremond, Méré, Fontenelle and so on acted not so much like a drop in the ocean as an island chain where ideas of a Pascal or, slipping into the 18th Century, a Montesquieu could grow while staying socially grounded. Still, in the moment, the roses smelled sweeter for the words used.

Florine Stettheimer, Costume design (Wave Drawing Aphrodite on a Dolphin) for artist's ballet "Orphée of the Quat-z-arts", (c.1912)

4. Dassoucy and the Burlesque

I could sense your brow furrow, insightful reader, when I wrote about “good sense” in my last Thought. Was not good sense at the centre of a highly respected 17th Century French movement that saw in the Ancients the very model of the poetic arts? Did Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, a leading figure of the movement and just as much a member of the intelligentsia as Évremond and Méré, not begin his The Poetic Art by effectively saying it was the language of the gods? Why yes, he did.

“It is in vain that at Parnassus a daring author

Thinks of the art of verse to reach the heights

If he does not feel from heaven the secret influence

If his star in dawning did not form of him a poet

In his narrow genius he is always captive

For him Phœbus is deaf, and Pegasus is shiftless”1placeholder

(Chant I, v. 1-6)

Let us look past the fact that my translation managed the impossible by making the English version longer than the French. For Boileau, without divine intervention a true poet one can never be. The sacralization of poetic expression would be all well and good except for…well, let us quote a short exchange between our non-17th Century honest man Ludvík Vaculík and Mrs. Blanka, the secretary taking notes in one of his interrogations:

“Why don’t you want to testify? No one’s punished for expressing his opinions. You ought to hear how we complain about the office canteen!”

“Yes, but just imagine that one day the canteen manager is given powers to have you all locked up.”

“Oh, but that’s absurd!”

“Isn’t it. And then imagine it happening on a nationwide scale.” (29)

To be clear, it is the religious authorities and those acting in the name of religion who were serving the insipid alphabet soup. Our modest Thoughts are not about soup, however, but delightful confectionery. “In truth,” Évremond tells us, “in books I look more for that which pleases than that which instructs.” (“À M. le maréchal de Créqui” 700) So, let us skip ahead.

“Whatever you write, avoid baseness:

The least noble style has however its noblesse.

With no regard for good sense, the insolent burlesque

Misleads the eyes first, pleases by its novelty.

One no longer sees in verses but the trivial points;

Parnassus spoke the language of the market;

The license to rhyme no longer has a limit;

Apollo twisted became a Tabarin,

This contagion infected the countryside,

From the clerk and the bourgeois passed all the way to princes.

The worst joker had his supporters;

And, even d’Assouci, all found their readers.

But from this style finally the court disabused

Disdained in these verses the easy extravagance,

Distinguished the naïf from flat and from buffoon,

And left the countryside admire the Typhon.


That this style never soils your work.

Imitate in Marot the elegant banter,

and leave the burlesque to the jokers of Pont-Neuf.”2placeholder

(Chant I, v. 79-97)


Dassoucy (d’Assouci) was a victim of Vaculík’s purveyors of viciously viscous victuals. The change in his writing during and after time spent in the Vatican’s dungeon was tragic. He was somehow able to make all his adversities up until that point agreeable, but the Vatican broke him. The clearest signal was in how he addressed his readers, since “And, even d’Assouci, all found their readers.” “Dear,” “generous,” “wise” reader suddenly became “pious.” (278, 31, 32, 325) One can imagine the accompanying change in tone.

Boileau used the word with which we started these Thoughts in as dismissive a way as possible. The “trivial” was baseness; a style that soiled. Then he used burlesque as the representative of this despicable desecration of the divine. The point of these scribblings is precisely to explore currents of thought shunted aside or swept under the rug because of their triviality. Our understanding of the Enlightenment is distorted without them.

A response to Boileau can be found in Dassoucy’s anecdotes from when he was a guest of the Duke and Duchess (Christine of France) of Savoy in Turin, well before the abrupt end of The Italien Adventures of M. Dassoucy.

“I will say therefore that the Burlesque, as he describes it to us, is without a doubt (as he says) rather easy to do: as there is nothing easier than to write badly, and one could say as much of Satire, as it is even easier to malign than to write badly: but, when a mind does not feel that it is strong enough to go all the way to this point of malignancy, and that he comes to lack this material [critique] which is better received in the world, believe me that it is rather difficult to progress in the esteem of a Court that does not pardon nonsense, and which, being accustomed to being nurtured with precious foods, would not be able to support tasteless ones without rejecting them: That is why, as one does not change one’s mind as one does clothes, and that the Verses are not as subject to change as ribbons in fashion, it very much appears that that the Court (which, after having had during thirty years the leisure to judge this burlesque, having for such a long time approved it, would not without shame be able to let go of the esteem it has always had for its merit) will always hold it in esteem so long as it finds it worthy of its spirit: but it is not a small thing for the Court to find it worthy of its spirit: it is rather easy to touch a knave who laughs at everything, but it is rather uneasy to move a constipated Stoic who laughs at nothing; that is why, whatever one says of the heroic, it is quite far from what is so difficult in achieving fine burlesque, which is the final effort of the imagination and the touchstone of a beautiful mind, not yet of all minds.” (274-5)

The movement began in 17th Century France. At the time, only two people were generally considered to do it well; Paul Scarron, who worked primarily in theatre, and Dassoucy, who was more of a travelling poet and minstrel. Dassoucy freely admitted that most production with the label was subpar and did not require much effort. Yet it was easier still to be mean and far worse to dress satirical cruelty in the guise of respectable Antiquity-supported critique. Boileau set noble courts as the arbiters of good taste, despite having been led astray by trivial treats. Such delicate palates, however, did not tend to be taken in by simple sweets and, as their decades-spanning interest in a refined sort of burlesque demonstrated, it was not a fickle fashion.

Trivial, as Boileau used it, was a straw man. Burlesque was not fundamentally trivial, it simply did not shy away from it, both in language and subject matter. This opened up possibilities that went beyond what one might imagine were appropriate for a court or salon. What was central was one’s judgment regarding its use:

“Neither Scarron nor I have ever spoken this language [of Pont-neuf; area in Paris frequented by street performers and vendors], and, if by chance we have sometimes employed it, it was not by ignorance, but by judgment, by choice, and by deliberate aim.


Everything is good in Burlesque, so long as it is well put in place, and that it is well applied; but this sort of composition is subject to Laws far more severe than one thinks.” (275-6)

This “in place” echoes Évremond’s argument for why Ancient poetry could not be the model for 17th Century verse. The culture had simply changed too much for it to be appropriate, even if it could and should still be appreciated and used for developing taste. Importantly, however, Dassoucy did not exclude the use of the “language of the gods” when appropriate and pointed out that sometimes such a language was the same as that of the market or Pont-neuf. (272) The ancient gods were not exactly constipated stoïcs, after all.

While differences over time and place in and across cultures have been an overarching theme, the libertine approach comes more into relief here than in previous Thoughts. Boileau presented the Ancients, at least the ones approved in the Thomist and Scholastic traditions, as a constant and modern movements like burlesque as passing fads. There was no real middle ground. For the libertines we have been discussing, the former was not all that catholic and the latter not all that superficial, and neither should be dismissed out of hand.

Another broad theme has been a particular take on honesty. Once more we see reflections of Évremond in Dassoucy’s words:

“It is not that I cannot employ my ink in such a low employment as well as another; but I am neither vindictive nor cunning; on the contrary, I always have a thousand years of indulgence for the faults of others: it is not that of a clever man who does not know them, but it is of an honest man who hides them; because in the end, what does it serve to critique all the good or bad works, if it is not to show that one has spirit, or rather that one has vanity, since in the end time and good sense justify all things?” (279)

When no one is perfect, the appropriate approach is to be considerate, not critical. Dassoucy did quite the opposite of hiding his faults, though in doing so he also put his innocence on display. The son of a parliamentary lawyer, he did receive sufficient instruction to develop his judgment. The family dynamic was chaotic and conflictual, while the world beyond was hostile to a slight, queer child. Instead of seeking “a more solid means of getting out of it,” as Pascal recommended, he accepted the inevitability of his miseries and used his ingenuity to make them a diversion for himself and others. (fr. 393, 671) Under the circumstances, that largely meant putting them in a comic light.

In the preface to his first Adventures, he underlined that the aim was not a sublime sort of pleasure that would, despite his ills being the main subject, leave them behind. Nor was he seeking to stew on them.

“Furthermore, do not expect that I will insinuate myself in your mind through beautiful language, in order to oblige you to pardon my faults, nor, to point out the worst of things, use the quality of expression that would slither from another pen than mine. I know you [wise reader] will do me justice.” (32)

Instead, he was hoping his story would amuse and give the reader insight into the world and heaven. In other words, in line with Fontenelle and repeating Diderot’s words cited in our Thought 1, his goal was to be “light and profound.” (367)

Was Dassoucy’s take on good sense an example of good sense? His work made his life in many ways more disagreeable than it otherwise would have been, all the while only sometimes managing to find the balance between light and profound. However, the way he paired good sense with time, as something that needs a while to simmer, strikes me as far more sensible than Boileau’s half-baked “insolent burlesque” judgment. As far as limiting poetry to the blessed few:

“A man, for not making good verses, is no less an honest man: it is permitted for everyone to write terrible ones, and as many as they would like […] It is a great ill to pride oneself for them, and a still worse ill to have them published.” (279)

The company of honest people could be a drag on bringing light to the Enlightenment. The court of Court (and salon) opinion led to conformity in many cases. Did the measure of fine burlesque boil down to long-standing Court approval and nothing more? At the same time, the libertine indulgence for different recipes and a sensible “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” approach to judgment created creative space lacking in other spheres of society.


To be continued? Well, these Thoughts delve into the aesthetic side of normativity. For the sake of balance, it would only make sense to say one or two things about libertine ethics…

I would like to once more thank Denis Lacroix at the University of Alberta Library. As a library connoisseur, for me a good research library and a helpful librarian are like a cellar where ideas can age agreeably and a wise sommelier who appreciates that all those ideas have their place.

All translations from French by the author.

Trent Portigal is a writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels include Our New Neolithic Age (2021), Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).

Works Cited

Bayle, Pierre. Pensées diverses sur la comète. Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas. L’Art poétique. Œuvres poétiques. Paris, Imprimerie générale, 1872.

Coypeau, Charles, sieur Dassoucy. Aventures Burlesques de Dassoucy. Paris, Garnier Frères, 1876.

Diderot, Denis, et al. Le rêve de D’Alembert. Œuvres Philosophiques. Ed. Michel Delon et al., Gallimard, 2010.

Gombaud, Antoine, Chevalier de Méré. Cinquième conversation. Œuvres complètes. Ed. Charles-H. Boudhors, Fernand Roche, 1930.

—. Première conversation. Œuvres complètes. Ed. Charles-H. Boudhors, Fernand Roche, 1930.

Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Charles, Lord of Saint-Évremond. “À M. Le maréchal de Créqui.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “Jugement sur Sénèque, Plutarque et Pétrone.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “Sur les plaisirs, à M. le comte D’Olonne.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “Sur les poèmes des Anciens.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essais, exemplaire de Bordeaux. 1595.

Pascal, Blaise, and Michel Le Guern. Pensées. Œuvres Complètes. V. 2, Gallimard, 2000.

Vaculík, Ludvík. “A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator.” A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator : The Prague Chronicles of Ludvík Vaculík. Trans. George Theiner, Readers International, 1987.

—. “Words…” A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator : The Prague Chronicles of Ludvík Vaculík. Trans. George Theiner, Readers International, 1987.


“C’est en vain qu’au Parnasse un téméraire auteur

Pense de l’art des vers atteindre la hauteur :

S’il ne sent point du ciel l’influence secrète,

Si son astre en naissant ne l’a formé poëte,

Dans son génie étroit il est toujours captif ;

Pour lui Phébus est sourd, et Pégase est rétif.”


“Quoi que vous écriviez, évitez la bassesse :

Le style le moins noble a pourtant sa noblesse.

Au mépris du bon sens, le burlesque effronté

Trompa les yeux d’abord, plut par sa nouveauté.

On ne vit plus en vers que pointes triviales ;

Le Parnasse parla le langage des halles ;

La licence à rimer alors n’eut plus de frein ;

Apollon travesti devint un Tabarin.

Cette contagion infecta les provinces,

“Du clerc et du bourgeois passa jusques aux princes.

Le plus mauvais plaisant eut ses approbateurs;

Et, jusqu’à d’Assouci, tout trouva des lecteurs.

Mais de ce style enfin la cour désabusée

Dédaigna de ces vers l’extravagance aisée,

Distingua le naïf du plat et du bouffon,

Et laissa la province admirer le Typhon.


Que ce style jamais ne souille votre ouvrage.

Imitons de Marot l’élégant badinage,

Et laissons le burlesque aux plaisans du Pont-Neuf.”


June 2024


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Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France, Part II

by Trent Portigal