May 31, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of Marc Fumaroli’s “Quand l’Europe parlait français”
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Marc Fumaroli. Quand l’Europe parlait français. Paris, Editions de Fallois, 2001.
As the title of this book would suggest, linguistic hegemony is not unique to our modern globalized society. It began with Europe’s fascination with French society and language during the eighteenth century. During the extended period of peace and prosperity in France known as l’Age des Lumières (1713 1789), Fumaroli argues that the predominance of the French language in Europe represented a widespread desire to participate in France’s image of happiness and intelligence – to enter into a privileged community:
“[Apprendre le français] était tout autre chose que de communiquer. C’était entrer ‘en compagnie’” (21). Fumaroli’s book is based on this same desire to ‘entrer en compagnie’ with the intellectuals of the Enlightenment: this work represents an excellent point of departure for research on the eighteenth century in its meticulous reconstruction of salon culture.
Fumaroli traces the trajectory of Enlightenment optimism and francophilia that begins at the seat of the Sun King in Paris and Versailles and that radiates to every major 18th-century European city: London, Rome, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. The interesting thing about Fumaroli’s book, however, is that it is not explicitly theoretical: the author explicitly states that the goal of his work is not to defend any specific thesis about the eighteenth century. It represents a massive research effort that identifies and positions the key intellectual and political figures of the period. In fact, he populates the salons with such detail that he seems to be as familiar with the intellectual currents and figures as those who were present.
The book proceeds chronologically, but the chapters are centered on specific members of “la grande compagnie” of Paris (“têtes couronnées,” “princes, maréchaux, et gentilshommes,” philosophes et artistes) starting with Abbé Conti and the Comte de Caylus in 1713 and ending with the Polish King Stanislas II Auguste Poniatowski in 1795. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book is its organization: by dividing the chapters according to key intellectual figures, the reader is able to appreciate the intricacy and international dimension of Enlightenment politics and philosophy. For example, the paintings of the Italian artist Titian appear as a key issue in the aesthetic debate in the chapters about Italian intellectual Francesco Algarotti, Prussian monarch Frederic II, and English aristocrat Lord Chesterfield. The reader will also recognize Frederic II from a previous chapter devoted to his association with Voltaire (“le roi de la République des Arts”). In other words, Fumaroli captures how inescapably influential these international figures were in each other’s lives as they wove themselves into the fabric of European Enlightenment society. The author even provides direct access to the personal disposition and written elegance of the book’s subjects by including useful excerpts of correspondence between various intellectuals.
Fumaroli gives the distinct impression that European leaders during the Age des Lumières came closer to Plato’s model of philosopher-kings than any society before or since. Situating Voltaire as the central intellectual figure, Fumaroli corrects a modern tendency to separate “culture” and “diplomacy” and recreates a society in which the peace and optimism of the period are reflected in the extended visits of artists and writers to foreign courts: Italian actors at Versailles and French sculptors at Stockholm symbolized not only an aesthetic exchange, but political solidarity between foreign monarchs. Fumaroli also briefly addresses the troubled and frequently misunderstood relationship of the Enlightenment to the French Revolution of 1789. While he acknowledges the genesis of social discontent in the Enlightenment, he insists that the violence and disorder of 1789 directly contradict the main goal of the Age des Lumières: a “paix civilisée” brought about by moderation and conciliation. From this standpoint he is able to reconcile what he calls the “black irony” of 19th- century intellectuals such as Schopenhauer, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky, who called the Revolution “ce Mal absolu qui avait surgi du sein même de la passion du Bien” (17).
Considering Fumaroli’s meticulous erudition, this book is very readable and its value as a reference is made all the more accessible by a comprehensive index. Fumaroli takes the opportunity to provide a very broad initial context of the eighteenth century in Europe while addressing common misconceptions about the period. He expresses a rather poignant nostalgia for the era of the preeminence of the French language (as would be expected from any member of the Académie Française) that suggests the interesting idea of French as the underground language of modern intellectuals, or the “langue moderne de la clandestinité de l’esprit” (22).