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Thinking Outside the Pyramid

By Danny LaChance

For Juliette Cherbuliez, absolute power isn’t so absolute

Although she’s one of the most innovative scholars of 17th-century France, Juliette Cherbuliez will likely never be asked to write the tourist’s guide to the Palace of Versailles.

For history buffs, the palace is legendary: Versailles is the site where King Louis XIV shored up absolute power in France, turning once-powerful nobles into his personal lapdogs in the process. Evidence of his power is everywhere: in the hall of mirrors, on large vases dotted with gold and diamonds, on the ceilings of the king’s and queen’s quarters in murals depicting heroes and heroines of the past.

But Cherbuliez, an associate professor in the department, isn’t impressed. “It’s this McMansion!" she says, rolling her eyes. “And I don’t mean that in a positive way."

Cherbuliez takes issue with how Versailles has become the dominant symbol of culture and power in pre-modern France. In mainstream histories of the 17th century, she says, “the political system is seen as an incredibly centralized, top-down model of governance. You can’t get a political system that is more geared toward this pinnacle of power that is the king." Commands, customs, culture—“Everything," she explains, “allegedly floats down, through divine right, from the king."

Cherbuliez doesn’t dispute the existence of absolutism in France. But the whole “Versailles-as-the-apogee-of-culture" model has never rung true to her. “It was more complicated than that," she says. “So what are the complexities, what are those political, geographical, physical, material gestures that create culture?"

It was from that question that Cherbuliez’s first book, The Place of Exile: Leisure Literature and the Limits of Absolutism, emerged. Rummaging through archives in France, England, and the Netherlands for texts from the era, she found that 17th-century culture can’t always be traced back to Louis XIV sitting neatly atop the pyramid of power.

Indeed, studying those people considered the least politically active at the time, Cherbuliez has found evidence that the king’s absolute power wasn’t always so absolute. The growing proliferation and accessibility of technology like the printing press enabled those in different parts of the pyramid—and even those outside of the pyramid—to create and publish writing that contemplated the contours of the world beyond Versailles. Their writing, termed “leisure literature" by Cherbuliez, was different from the courtly literature of the era that served royal power overtly and the politically daring literature that challenged it explicitly. Leisure literature was informal and versatile, political and trivial at the same time. And it could be both supportive and subversive of the king’s power.

It’s not necessarily fun stuff to read—the finished products were frequently thinly disguised stories about a group of friends, replete with obscure insider jokes—but that’s not the point, Cherbuliez says.

For both the people who wrote leisure literature and for the scholars who study it some 300 years later, it’s the process that’s most important. “The analogy I use in my classrooms is that leisure literature was the equivalent of board games—scrabble, poker without the money, those kinds of social pastimes," she explains. “Writing in the 17th century was something that you did for fun, but also to establish contacts with people, to shore up your social status, to bring people around you (or to exclude them), just as you might do when you host a dinner party today."

Cherbuliez points to the wealthiest woman in France at the time, Anne-Marie Louise d’Orleans, duchesse de Montpensier, who would hire a printer to come to her chateau to print the books she wrote with her friends. The books weren’t widely distributed, she notes, and some remained manuscripts. But that wasn’t really the point. “She was exiled because of her completely inappropriate behavior against the King during a failed civil war," Cherbuliez explains. “As a result, she was more or less confined to the boondocks. And she used writing and printing to help create a community and keep her social world as intact as possible."

The social element of writing is one that has become displaced, over the years, by our more romanticized notion of authors as solitary figures who write in isolation before releasing masterpieces to the masses. Cherbuliez’s findings, however, challenge this received truth. “Writing, as a form of technology, doesn’t always produce the individual but does, in fact, produce political collectivities. It’s first and foremost about creating social circles," she says.

She’s found a similar sort of contradiction in the way we think of exile. Exile, at the time, was a strategy used by the king to shore up his power: nobles who threatened the absolutist system were told to leave the sovereign’s territory and never return.

Over time, Cherbuliez says, our individualist culture has come to frame exile in severe or romantic terms. “The exile is in a position of alienation from the world. You’re all alone, but at the same time you’re experiencing a real sense of self," Cherbuliez explains.

But rather than isolating individuals, the experience of exile often created alternative communities of French people who socialized, produced literature that was implicitly critical of the court, and forged relationships that weren’t tied to the king. Free from the demands of courtly life, those in exile began creating and documenting new forms of fellowship outside the court.

The pattern that emerges in Cherbuliez’s investigations into leisure literature and exile is striking. For years, scholars have looked to the 17th century to understand the seeds of modern individualism. And traditionally what they’ve found has been the solitary ruler exercising power over vast swaths of people and land; the lonely exile; the rise of the novel, with its emphasis on personal journeys.

But Cherbuliez isn’t asking traditional questions. “I’m not interested in this period as a precursor to who we are today," she says. “I’m much more interested in the lost opportunities, the things that didn’t end up happening."

What she’s found, in exile and in leisure literature, are instances of collaboration and socialization that were not directly overseen by the king. Had they become the norm, these forms of society might have altered the way we think about everything from gender relations to personal freedom to the creation of art.

These days, Cherbuliez continues to gather evidence of the lost opportunities of the premodern era. She’s currently using 17th-century versions of the Medea myth to understand premodern culture. Cultures across time have represented differently the woman who kills her children to spite her husband. They either reconcile, or fail to reconcile, those parts of Medea that are morally good—her passion for her husband, her knowledge—with her horrifying act of infanticide.

Because representations of Medea change over time and place, the Medea myth works as a kind of Rorschach ink blot test for a culture: it reveals a culture’s unconscious understandings of the relation between morality and violence. By understanding the way 17th-century culture linked violence and morality, Cherbuliez hopes to find more evidence of lost possibilities.

Ultimately, by pointing out the shades of gray in 17th-century culture, Cherbuliez hopes her readers and students will come to realize that the way we live our lives today is not the inevitable outcome of unstoppable, black-and-white historical forces. Our collective fate, it seems, has always come from the base and the sides and the winds swirling around the pyramid as well as its tip.