Monday, May 30, 2011

The Memoir as Score-Settling: de Tocqueville

 This past winter I reread de Tocqueville's Souvenirs, his memoir of 1848 and its aftermath. His judgments of his fellow actors run toward the epigrammatic and brutal. Early on, he remarks of Louis Philippe

"In general, his style on solemn occasions recalled the sentimental jargon of the late 18th Century, reproduced with facile copiousness, and singularly incorrect: Rousseau touched up by a 19th Century cook (a pretentious one)."

Opening toward the middle of the book (Part II, Ch. VI), I find

"Lamartine's wit reflected itself in Champeaux's stupidity like the sun in a smoked glass, which lets one see it without rays but more clearly than with the naked eye."

In the next chapter, a psychiatrist ("an excellent doctor, ... though himself a bit cracked") confides that various notables of his own left party are mad and should be in the hospital, not the assembly. In Part III de Tocqueville  tells how he kept the elder statesmen of the previous regime happy by flattery--always welcoming, often soliciting, almost never following their advice.

I should say that these portraits are a minor distraction, or even spice, to a fascinating book. One hesitates to believe that the other politicians were quite so lost or venal, or de Tocqueville quite so clairvoyant as he depicts them and himself; yet his speech of January 27, 1848 anticipates and explains the coming troubles clearly. 

His evaluation of French politics and society in the period is not much different from Flaubert's in Sentimental Education. One could, I suppose, read de Tocqueville's unflattering portraits as a key to Flaubert's roster of Dambreuse salon:

"There one met the great Monsieur A, the famous B, the intelligent C, the eloquent Z, the wonderful y, the old stagers of the Left Centre, the paladins of the Right, the veterans of the Middle Way, all the stock characters of the political comedy. [Frederic] was astounded by their abysmal conversation, their pettiness, their spite, their bad faith..."

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