Studies In Seventeenth-Century French Literature: Expressions of Absolutism, between Dream and Nightmare

FRIT-F630 — Fall 2023

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Hall Bjørnstad
BH 135
Days and Times
T 4:30P - 6:30P
Course Description

In recent years the label of “absolutism” has frequently been used about present-day autocratic rulers from Trump and Putin to Orbán and Erdoğan. But what exactly is conveyed by such a characterization? What is absolutism today and what was it back in its heyday under Louis XIV at Versailles? In this course, we will explore the logic and political imaginary undergirding the age of Louis XIV, not only to understand the past but also our own present.

This inquiry has its origin in a historiographic conundrum. As modern historians have long noted, the study of the absolutist culture under Louis XIV has resulted in “the contradiction of an absolutism that we know incomparably well in its details but without a good grasp of its totality or coherence” (Cosandey and Descimon). In this course we will aim at getting at this “totality and coherence” by approaching the concept differently from what most historians have done. As an analytic tool, the notion is useful less on account of its indexical value – pointing to a stable definition or sparking discussion on what that definition should be – than because it brings into focus the practices of self-representation that found and sustain the power of the king. Indeed, the only place where absolutism incontestably exists is in its manifestations, in the image of itself that royal power projects outwards but also inwards.

We will study this dynamic by looking closely at various artistic expressions of absolutism (court festivals, theater, poetry, architecture, portraiture, etc.) that respond to and help construct the image of Louis XIV. The collective and interdisciplinary endeavor of the course, where each participant will specialize in a specific expression, is organized in the firm conviction that if not the totality, then certainly the coherence of French absolutism under Louis XIV best can be grasped through a careful examination of the various aspects of its expressions. We will look particularly closely at instances where the collective celebratory dream of absolutism may seem, for us as modern observers, intriguingly close to a nightmare, as in situations of military defeat or with the introduction of seemingly “tyrannic” administrative measures (e.g. with the revocation of the nearly century-long relative religious toleration of the Edict of Nantes and the introduction of the infamous slave code known as Le Code Noir, both in 1685).

Readings will include primary texts by Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Bossuet, Perrault, Félibien, and Louis XIV himself, as well as critical essays by Louis Marin, Peter Burke, Roger Chartier, Norbert Elias, and Patrick Boucheron, among others. Weekly response papers and scaffolded final research project, where approaches that pursue the parallel between absolutism then and now are encouraged. All readings in French (English translations available). Seminar conducted in English.

FRIT-F 630    # 31361   4:30P - 6:30P            T          BH 135            Bjornstad H

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