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How to become a compulsive liar

While the schools of the 3rd Republic celebrated Moliere as the most accomplished representative of the spirit of the French language and veritable symbol of the French nation (in opposition to the German nation), they nevertheless continued to pass down Boileau's lesson on the “disparities” of Moliere's comic oeuvre. Into this world appeared a man of letters, a talented poet and novelist whose glory days came at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, who is still admired today for some of his works, in particular La Femme et le pantin, and who retains a veritable aura among fans of erotic literature, Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925). He was persuaded, like all his contemporaries, of the disparities in the works of Moliere, mixing genius and weakness. Above all, he was persuaded that the veritable spirit of the French language was not embodied by the disparate Moliere, but by Pierre Corneille, and he had long tried the patience of his correspondents with his admiration of the three giants of French poetry that were, in his eyes, Ronsard, Corneille and Hugo: an admiration that became focused, over the years, almost exclusively on Corneille.

Beguiled by Corneille. A collector of rare texts and books, Louÿs read extensively and, concerning 17th century texts, liked to hear in them, be it directly or indirectly, the voice of Pierre Corneille. The decisive element, as we have explained (Origins of the theory), was the publication in 1918 by the publisher Payot of the first volume (the second would appear in 1919) of a book by Abel Lefranc, professor at the Collège de France, entitled Sous le masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby [Beneath Shakespeare's Mask: William Stanley, 6th Count of Derby]. Louÿs had already re-read Moliere's Amphitryon and had been surprised to find a Moliere in which there were none of the disparities he had been taught to see; one that managed irregular verse with grace. He had also noticed that the other play by Moliere that used the same type of versification, Psyché, was published three years later with a notice informing the reader that Corneille had taken care of three quarters of the versification. Bolstered by the example of Abel Lefranc's analysis of Shakespeare and decided to draw attention to himself by launching a particularly iconoclastic position, he did not hesitate to take the plunge: Amphitryon had to be by Corneille, as did everything good in Moliere's writings.

A specialist of literary hoaxes and pseudonyme. Louÿs might not have convinced himself of his theory so easily had he not himself been a veritable specialist of literary hoaxes and pseudonyms. His fame, it is known, was obtained by passing off a collection of poems in the classical style that he had composed, the Chansons de Bilitis, as a translation of the work of a Greek poetess contemporary of Sapho. In addition, parallel to his “official” literary works, Louÿs never ceased to increase the number of his publications, sometimes erudite (in particular in the journal l'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et des curieux), sometimes erotic, all published under a positively stupefying variety of pseudonyme.

Attributional delirium. Even his very admiring biographer, Jean-Paul Goujon (Pierre Louÿs, Fayard, 2002), had difficulty justifying his obsession with attributions: “Louÿs certainly may have been raving in some of his conclusions or interpretations” (“Louÿs a certes pu divaguer dans certaines de ses conclusions ou interprétations” (p.750)). Recognising that he had gone too far, J.-P. Goujon backed off before most of the other attributions but, seeking to find some silver lining in the dark clouds that enshrouded the last years of Louÿs's life (marked by one of the most terrible declines imaginable) he attempted to save his most famous of attributional ravings, the attribution of Moliere's master-works to Corneille, at all costs. J.-P. Goujon thus became the champion of Louÿs's cause; to put it in legal terms, he “investigated for the prosecution”, seeking to justify or approve all of Louÿs's claims, without placing on the other side of the balance even the slightest element susceptible to contradicting him. Yet it would have been a sound practice to remind readers at this stage that Louÿs's attributional delirium might have taken root in the penchant he had had all his life for pseudonyms and “secret” publications. For, strangely enough, in the rest of his biography, J.-P. Goujon admires Louÿs for the way he had of playing with the different facets of his personality, yet he carefully avoids comparing this truly exceptional particularity of Louÿs's with the obsession he had with ascribing to Corneille this same taste for pseudonyms and secret publications. For a man who, according to the witnesses of his time — and much to the chagrin of his biographer —, lived, after the death of his brother Georges (1917), in a state of distress that left him only rare moments of lucidity, and who to soothe his suffering and depression consumed litres of alcohol on top of cocaine, it is easy to understand that he would have been prone to projecting on others his own obsession with split literary personalities. Ascribing to the grand Corneille, whom he admired more than anyone, his own propensity towards a split personality, was a way of putting himself closer to Corneille.

Reasons for real delirium. Louÿs's attributional ravings might not have reached such proportions if he had been in full possession of his wits at the time when he launched his “Corneille theory”. That his disciples conceal this aspect of the question is only natural since they have once and for all set up their master as the ingenious inventor of a truth that needed only him to emerge after three centuries. It is more regrettable that Louÿs's biographers, from whom one would expect perfect honesty in their intellectual approach, should fall into the same trap. It is therefore disappointing that Jean-Paul Goujon carefully removes his chapter on the Corneille-Moliere theory from the chronological continuity in which it emerged: he is thus able to mask the fact that Louÿs threw himself heart and soul into this business at a time when, in all other aspects of his life, he was suffering the consequences of the most utter physical and mental decline.

“Louÿs has not left home in several years. For the past few months, he has lived in bed and lived on a liquid diet: on average 2 bottles of champagne a day, 3 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of Mariani. In addition, morphine and cocaine. The result was to be expected.” (Léautaud, Journal, May 22, 1922, cited by J.P. Goujon, work cited, p.777)

“A similarly excruciating testimony from Fernand Gregh's L'Age de fer: 'He [Louÿs] spent his nights awake, slept one day out of three, drank Mariani wine in incredible doses, three or four bottles a day, smoked sixty to eighty cigarettes every twenty-four hours, without counting the use of several classic poisons.'” (Goujon, p. 777)

One can understand how, over the course of these stretches of days and nights without sleep, Louÿs could have blackened hundreds or even thousands of pages, accumulating “evidence” for his thesis, that is to say, in reality, recopying lists of thousands of lines of Corneille and Moliere's verse with the conviction that they possessed common characteristics in terms of style and versification, and even in their linguistic “ticks”: interminable lists justified in his troubled mind by the fact that it was, for him, all the work of a single writer, a Corneille signing sometimes Corneille sometimes Moliere. We will see further along, in our study on “style”, what credit such demonstrations merit.


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