Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act II: Moliere’s Mirror)

Reading great works from the past can be like going to a museum. We can examine the text as a museum piece or some kind of historical document; something far removed from our daily lives. We can read Moliere’s play about The Misanthrope like that. We can look at it as a relic from the past; appropriate primarily for understanding aristocratic social etiquette in 17th century France. We can read passively and soak up information, then put away the play and get on with real life. Or, as a second way to read, we can read it as a text that still has bearing on life as it is lived in 21st century America. But if we read it this way we have to be active readers.
Act II gives us a good opportunity to practice our active reading skills. At a social gathering the socialite Celimente is giving out her opinions about mutual friends who are not present at the party. As we read her assessments we can become active readers by asking ourselves one question. Here’s what Celimente has to say about… Cleonte: Behaved like a perfect fool… has he no friend to counsel him? The question I should ask myself is: Do I know anybody like that? Old Damon: He’s a wondrous talker, and has the power to tell you nothing hour after hour. Do I know anybody like that? Timante: A man of mystery… who moves about in a romantic mist on secret missions which do not exist. Do I know anybody like that? Geralde: He mixes only with the titled class and fawns on dukes and princes… the man’s obsessed with rank. Do I know anybody like that? Belise: Owing to her dry and faint replies, the conversation wilts, and droops, and dies. Do I know anybody like that? Adraste: Has a gigantic passion for himself. He rails against the court and cannot bear it that none will recognize his hidden merit. Do I know anybody like that? Cleon: It’s Cleon’s table that people come to see. He gives a splendid dinner… But must he serve himself along with it? Do I know anybody like that? Damis: He works too hard at cleverness… He scolds at all the latest books and plays, thinking wit must never stoop to praise. Do I know anybody like that?
If I can answer yes to one or more of these questions, then for me, as a reader, Moliere moves beyond being a writer only relevant for academic histories. He has now moved into the realm of being a shrewd commentator on human nature. And it is an article of faith for many Great Books readers that human nature doesn’t essentially change from one age to the next. The actors may change clothes but the human heart still has the same desires it had in the age of Homer or Moses. In Act I Philinte says “men are knavish, selfish and unjust.” Was that true in 17th century France but has ceased to be the case in modern America? We can do a spot check by asking ourselves: do I know anybody who is knavish, selfish and unjust? If I do, then Moliere’s play applies just as much to me as it did to his audience four hundred years ago.
In evaluating Celimente’s own evaluation of her “friends” we can ask a deeper question which will make us even more active readers of the play: am I like that myself? This is the question that makes Moliere’s play stand out and deserve a place in the Great Books. He’s not just holding up a mirror to 17th century French society. He’s holding up a mirror for me and you. The reflection may not be very flattering. It forces us to think back. Have I ever in my life behaved like a perfect fool (Cleonte)? Have I ever talked too much (Old Damon)? Have I ever pretended to be something I’m not (Timante)? Have I ever fawned over rich people or famous actors, writers or musicians (Geralde)? And so forth. Moliere isn’t scolding the reader. He’s much too polite to do that. But he tells us, delicately and with humor, that we’re not perfect. Moliere points out imperfections without scolding. Instead, humor is Moliere’s mirror.


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