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History of the insinuation of doubt


In 1674, a famous author named Boileau who was seeking to assert his magisterium over the world of French letters published his Art poétique in which, among other things, he distributed praise (rarely), criticism (abundandly) and condemnation (frequently). His friend Moliere, deceased the previous year, did not escape criticism, hé whose

Art might have received the prize;
Had he been less a friend to the public in his learned portraits,
Had he not made his figures grimace so much,
And abandoned, for the silly, the agreeable and refined,
And shamelessly combined Terence and Tabarin [a snake-oil salesman of the Pont Neuf].
In the ridiculous bag in which Scapin envelops himself
I no longer recognise the author of the Misanthrope... (Art poétique, III, 394-400)

We know today that this union of opposites that Boileau criticised in Moliere was deliberate: on the one hand because he held dear the conviction of not excluding any form of comedy, on the other hand because this union of opposites was at the heart of the galant aesthetic that had been progressively developed in urbane circles and to which Moliere adhered. But Boileau had long been engaged in a merciless quarrel against the “Moderns” — he was on the front lines when, thirteen years later (1687), the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes openly broke out — and he condemned the fundamentally modern movement that was the galant aesthetic with all his being. As far as comic theatre was concerned, all that strayed from the model of Ancient comedy symbolised by Terence, the model of measured and honest comedy, was in Boileau's eyes necessarily an abomination. It is not that Boileau absolutely wanted to criticise his friend Moliere: three years later in his ''Épître VII'' (dedicated to Racine), he praised him enthusiastically; simply, in his Art poétique where he sought to set himself up as the legislator of French letters — and in which he legislated in the name of the Ancients —, he was naturally drawn to cite as exemplary only the “learned portraits” (doctes peintures) of the Misanthrope — alone worthy of Terence and thus alone worthy of being imitated — and to warn his readers not to canonise Moliere as the patron saint of the comic genre.

When one bears in mind that Boileau's Art poétique is the pedestal on which, first, 18th century literary taste, then later the 19th century literary canon was established, one can understand that every successive generation since that time was sensitive to the “disparities” that Boileau had invited them to see in Moliere's comic oeuvre. It was with this conviction firmly anchored in his spirit, a conviction shared by nearly all his contemporaries, that Pierre Louÿs began to questions Moliere's works.

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