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Moralistes of Modern Life: the Subjectivization of Moralist Discourse in Eighteenth-Century France


Moralistes of Modern Life: the Subjectivization of Moralist Discourse in Eighteenth-Century France


Órlaith Catherine Creedon

Doctor of Philosophy in French

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Nicholas Paige, Chair

This dissertation studies the breakdown of classical moralist discourse in the post-absolutist moment and traces the newly flexible forms of this self-defined "literature of social observation" over the course of the eighteenth century. Tied to the specific context of absolute monarchy, moralist literature had analyzed the world in function of analytical grids and rigid codes, and hence generated a literature of closed forms: maxims, portraits, caractères. I argue that the static completeness of moralist literature reached its limits of possibility under the Regency, when the migration from the closed system of the court to the "open" system of the city radically destabilized the finite and fixed nature of social categories and their codes - presuming this had ever been a social reality, though it had in fact been represented as such in moralist texts. Analyzing generically diverse texts which have never before been put into dialogue - Le Spectateur français (Marivaux), Le Neveu de Rameau (Diderot), and the Tableau de Paris (Mercier), I study a feature of the emergence of urban modernity that has heretofore remained overshadowed by Benjaminian studies of the nineteenth-century capital: the figure of the urban spectator. Informed by eighteenth-century aesthetics and drame theory, my dissertation argues for the figure of the urban spectator as the mediator and model of a public in the making. No longer an implied, disembodied narrator, the spectator's emergence produced not only new ways of writing, but also of knowing, what La Rochefoucauld referred to as "les choses de la vie." This dissertation focuses on narrative texts that stage the spectator in the act of beholding; that is to say, narratives in which moralist discourse is subjectivized.

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