Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act III: Conflict Resolution)

One of the hot topics in modern America is “conflict resolution.” How can people disagree with one another without being disagreeable or, worse, coming to blows over their conflicting ideas? A good Great Books discussion group can help. Reading great classical works lets us see how other people in other ages dealt with conflict resolution. Moliere was four hundred years ahead of his time. In Act III he not only deals with conflict resolution but he does it in an equal-opportunity kind of way. He shows how both men and women handle aggressive behavior in polite society. They would never dream of physical assault. That would be in bad taste. But they put on their verbal boxing gloves and have at it. Scene One deals with the men: Clitandre versus Acaste. Scene Five deals with the women: Arsinoe versus Celimene.
Let’s deal with the guys first. In this matchup the fight is over the grand prize: the love of Celimene. Acaste starts out by telling us how wonderful he is: “when I survey myself, I find no cause whatever for distress of mind. I’m young and rich; I can in modesty lay claim to an exalted pedigree; and owing to my name and my condition I shall not want for honors and position.” He goes on to say that he’s also brave and witty and has excellent taste “at the theater” and he can “generally be known as one who knows.” Besides, all the fair ladies practically worship him. Well. Acaste would feel right at home in New York or Washington or Hollywood. But Clitandre has a counter-punch up his sleeve: “if so many ladies hold you dear, why do you press a hopeless courtship here?” The “hopeless courtship” is of course Celimene. Clitandre’s main point is this: she doesn’t love you, she loves me. Guys have been having this argument since… basically forever. There’s more back and forth verbal punching and counter-punching but the argument finally ends with the equivalent of a barroom bet. Clitandre says “let us have an armistice and make a treaty. What do you say to this? If ever one of us can plainly prove that Celimene encourages his love, the other must abandon hope, and yield, and leave him in possession of the field.” Winner takes all. Isn’t that much better than a fistfight? Acaste agrees: “Now there’s a bargain that appeals to me; with all my heart, dear Marquess, I agree.” So that’s the way it’s done in polite society. They shake hands and it’s a deal. Conflict resolved.
Now for the main event: the ladies. Clitandre and Acaste may think they’re tough guys but they’re mere lightweights compared to Arsinoe and Celimene. There’s an old saying that a gentleman never insults anyone, unless it’s intentional. With these two refined ladies the insults are not only intentional, but done with extreme malice. Before Arsinoe even comes on the scene Celimene is warming up: “her poor success in snaring men explains her prudishness. It breaks her heart to see the beaux and gallants engrossed by other women’s charms…” This is hitting below the belt… “so she’s always in a jealous rage against the faulty standards of the age. She lets the world believe that she’s a prude to justify her loveless solitude.” Celimene is clearly a heavyweight champ. Do not mess with this woman.
To make a long story short, Arsinoe never has a chance. She starts out well enough: “I have hastened to your door to bring you, as your friend, some information about the status of your reputation.” Arsinoe hates to tell Celimene this but, as her friend, she feels she’s obliged to be honest: your reputation, Celimene, is trashed. Celimene listens quietly and then it’s her turn: “I’m very much obliged to you for this; and I’ll at once discharge the obligation by telling you about your reputation.” The rest is not a pretty sight. Arsinoe pretty much ends up fleeing from the scene. And the winner is… Celimene with a first round KO. Conflict resolved. French style.


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