Posted: May 8, 2009
ome of the greatest historians have eulogized, even rhapsodized, the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), placing it among the jeweled epochs of human achievement. Thomas Babington Macaulay, for instance, bows graciously if reluctantly before a France supreme both in military might and in peaceable virtues, possessing "over the surrounding countries at once the ascendancy which Rome had over Greece and the ascendancy which Greece had over Rome." That said, Macaulay makes the French despot the villain of his History of England (1849-1861).
Winston Churchill in Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-1938), the biography of Churchill's distinguished ancestor, the general who brought Louis XIV's armies to their knees, likewise honors the martial and cultural superiority of Louis's France—superior for as long as such things last, which in this case was until Marlborough was through with them.
The conquest [of Protestant Europe], planned and largely effected, was not only military and economic, but religious, moral, and intellectual. It was the most magnificent claim to world dominion ever made since the age of the Antonines. And at the summit there reigned in unchallenged splendour for more than half a century a masterful, competent, insatiable, hard-working egotist, born to a throne.
In The Age of Louis XIV (1751), Voltaire numbers four regimes down the millennia under which the excellence of thought and taste flourished as nowhere else: the Greece of Pericles, Plato, and Alexander; Augustan Rome; Renaissance Florence under the Medici; and the France of Louis XIV, "perhaps of the four the one which most nearly approaches perfection." Other propitious times and places appear merely gilded beside this one of solid gold. "There will never again be such an era in which a Duke de La Rochefoucauld, the author of the Maxims, after discoursing with a Pascal and an Arnauld, goes to the theatre to witness a play of Corneille."
Of course, Voltaire is not known for truckling to royal power. In 1718 the premiere of his play Oedipus scandalized the Court with the line "Tremble, unfortunate Kings, for your reign is past." An even more notorious zinger suggests how he really felt about the matter: he longed for the day, he said, when the last king is strangled to death with the bowels of the last priest.
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The Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), like Voltaire, was a courtier at Louis XIV's Versailles, and his memoirs, which took him a dozen years to complete and were not published until 1788, over 30 years after his death, are the most famous memoirs ever written. They are also among the most voluminous, at 13,536 pages in the eight-volume Pléiade edition, admirably condensed to some 1,500 pages in this new edition of Lucy Norton's fine translation.
Like Voltaire, Saint-Simon saw the end of France's immemorial glory approaching, though he viewed that end from a sharply different angle. In his memoirs, the Duc treats Voltaire like a scurrilous upstart and dismantles any claim he might have to literary eminence. Voltaire, whose real name was Arouet, was the son of a notary who had served as the Duc's lawyer, and was therefore a lowborn fellow. He was exiled, wrote the Duc,
for writing monstrously satirical, monstrously impudent verses. I should not waste time over such trifles, had not this Arouet, now a famous poet and academician under the pseudonym Voltaire, also become, after many disastrous adventures, something of a personage in the world of letters, even winning a kind of reputation among certain sorts of people.
In Saint-Simon's estimation, the most celebrated writer of his time is transformed into a jumped-up homunculus, a guttersnipe whom no person of true distinction would regard with anything but contempt.
Saint-Simon was accustomed to delivering such pronouncements from on high. Although he was barely five feet tall and had a voice like a squeeze-toy, no one was more ferociously punctilious about matters of honor and ceremony. He was a traditionalist hothead who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including the king. Protective of the privileges of his dukedom as a mother dog is of her newborn litter, he was adept in the scrimmages for status that occupied a good deal of most courtiers' time and energy. As the dukedom had been quite recently bestowed—on Saint-Simon's father by Louis XIII, whom the grateful son venerated above Louis XIV—a certain insecurity colored the Duc's passion for his rightful place. His dignity, which he wore like a long and splendid train, was continually getting stepped on by those following too closely or attempting to overtake him. He was the court's self-appointed guardian of the proprieties, and in that role proved both hard-nosed and feckless.
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Sensitive as a spider-web, registering the subtlest tremor of offense against his dignity, Saint-Simon is the aristocrat par excellence, as described by Montesquieu, Tolstoy, and Churchill—the man for whom honor is his raison d'être. Honor can be a force of moral beauty, but it can also be the justification for ugliness of various stripes. Saint-Simon was not above defending his own dubious behavior in honor's name, thus seeming peevish and self-absorbed rather than noble. If honor is to enjoy pride of place in the hearts of a nation's aristocracy, it needs to serve something higher than the grasping self.
Saint-Simon saw others grasping everywhere he looked, and professed to look upon the dismal spectacle with disinterestedness. On the death in 1711 of the dauphin, the king's son and presumptive heir, the pleasures of observing and understanding the reactions of the Court overcame any emotion he might have felt at the loss. Of course, as Saint-Simon had always regarded the dauphin as fundamentally inert, with all the rare distinction of an undercooked pudding, he was not inclined to go into deep mourning.
...[S]ince the King was at Marly, I felt unconstrained and could study the crowd at my ease, allowing my eyes to dwell on those who from various motives were much or little affected. Thus I followed the movements of certain personages and endeavored stealthily to penetrate their inmost thoughts; for indeed, to one who knows the inner life of a Court, these first moments after some tremendous event are intensely gratifying. Each face reminds one of the cares and intrigues, the laborious efforts to advance a private fortune or form and strengthen a cabal, the cunning devices designed and executed for such purposes, the attachments at varying degrees of intimacy, the estrangements, dislikes, and hatreds, the unkind turns played and the favours granted, the tricks, petty shifts, and baseness of some individuals, the dashing of the hopes of some in mid-career, the stupefaction of others at the summit who had thought their ambitions fulfilled.
To engage in such watchfulness and to penetrate into the closely guarded chambers of character offer perhaps the supreme pleasures that being a courtier holds for a man such as Saint-Simon. He just happens to be one of those who need to get to the bottom of things. Clear-sightedness ranks perhaps at the top of his list of virtues, and curiosity about other persons' nature and behavior keeps his mind perennially occupied. This is not to say he had the makings of a political philosopher; abstraction and high speculation were not his strengths. The strengths he did possess were those of the ideal historian of his own time and place. He was a master of the character sketch, with the gift for seeing all round—and through—a person, a fondness for the telling anecdote, an eye for the killing detail. In undertaking his memoirs, he knew he was devoting himself to a serious literary enterprise.
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His truest insight, evident on nearly every page, is that the history of his time is principally the story of great men, and of the great women who influenced them; his is the history of an aristocratic society, and he shows both its grandeur and its flaws. Above all, he reveals the private caprices of high society that infect great politics: who's in and who's out, who likes or dislikes whom—the ever shifting values of the court determine the course the nation takes. Michel Chamillart, for instance, rose from obscurity to become intendant of finances and then controller-general because he wielded a mean billiard cue and billiards was the king's favorite game.
Louis had been fighting somewhere or other in Europe for 40 years, but in 1708 France was fighting for her life. Monsieur de Vendôme, the general in command of the campaign, appointed his personal enemy Monseigneur le Duc de Bourgogne to relieve the besieged city of Lille, with the nefarious intention "to make the prince fail in this vital enterprise, cast all the blame upon him, and thus bring him to complete and utter ruin." Rumor mongering about Bourgogne's excess of Christian piety, which was said to undo him as a soldier, cost him the confidence of his grandfather the king and the court.
Thus the cabal triumphed; not only did they carry with them the masses of all conditions, the smart set and Society, but even sensible people were influenced, with the result that in an incredibly short space of time it became dangerous to praise Mgr le Duc de Bourgogne in the slightest degree, while those who extolled M. de Vendôme at his expense might be sure of pleasing the King and Monseigneur [the Dauphin].
That matters of the utmost gravity should be commandeered by rogues and poltroons disgusts Saint-Simon. He provides a scathing backstage account of the war and demonstrates the monstrosity of the blood-letting that served the whims and ambitions of loathsome self-serving types.
During the 1708 campaign the war struck home as never before. Paris itself seemed in peril.
At Versailles one was constantly aware of the danger to loved ones and friends, and the best established families felt insecure of the future. Forty-hour services were held in the churches. Mme la Duchesse de Bourgogne spent hours in the chapel when she was supposed to be in bed and asleep, and exhausted her ladies by her vigils. Following her example, wives with husbands in the army scarcely left the churches. Gambling and even conversation had entirely ceased. Fear showed on every face and in people's remarks to a shocking extent. The sound of a horse trotting set everyone running to no known purpose.
The subsequent winter was the hardest anyone could remember. The wheat crop was ruined, and the police for a time forbade prudent farmers from re-sowing their fields with the sturdier barley. Poverty deepened as prices soared, although there should have been enough wheat in storage to feed the nation for two years, even without a harvest. The king's surgeon informed Louis that market regulators were keeping the price of wheat artificially high. Louis expressed his regrets but did nothing. Speculators made their fortunes while the poor died. Saint-Simon's pity for the suffering and his outcry against the predators show him at his most decent: he is "generously angry," to borrow a phrase from Orwell on Dickens.
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More often than not, however, when Saint-Simon gets angry, it is a stingy anger, over some slight to his rank: the judicial body known as the Parlement showing insufficient respect to dukes and peers, the king's legitimizing his several bastards. There are times when, indulging his vehement rage over some trifle, Saint-Simon makes one long for the bourgeois good sense of Moliere or La Bruyère, who also knew the mores of the court, though from a humbler vantage. In Moliere's The Misanthrope (1666), the beautiful and witty Célimène has written a letter describing why her various suitors don't suit her: "ever since the day I watched...[the viscount] spend three-quarters of an hour spitting into a well, so as to make circles in the water, I have been unable to think highly of him." And La Bruyère, whose Characters (1688) Saint-Simon considered a work of genius, eviscerates the very class to which Saint-Simon belongs:
A comparison between the two opposite extremes of the social scale, between great nobles and the common people, shows that the latter are content with the necessaries of life, while the former, who enjoy its superfluities, feel dissatisfied and deprived.... The one ingenuously displays a rude but honest nature; the other hides a corrupt and vicious spirit under a rind of politeness. The people have no wit, and the nobility have no soul; the former are basically good, and lack veneer; the latter have veneer, and nothing underneath it. Am I to choose? I'll not hesitate; I'll belong to the common people.
La Bruyère's sentiment is one that Saint-Simon could not begin to share, though he was able to understand it. For Saint-Simon's memoirs are full of highborn fools and miscreants, who have done nothing to deserve their golden fortune, and a great deal to deserve the contempt of good men. Although very much a creature of his time and place who stirs up the ambivalence of the modern reader, Saint-Simon was a good man who wrote an even better book. His memoirs do not make one regret the passing of the age of great kings; but they do make one wish for a similar chronicler of our own democratic age—wise, vital, witty, and knowing everything that goes on among those in power.