Jean-Alexandre Perras is a research associate at the Maison Française and the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford University. His thesis (Montreal University / University Paris 8), dealt with the history of genius between the XVIth and XVIIIth centuries. On this topic, he published L’Exception exemplaire: Inventions et usages du génie (Garnier Classics, 2015). Pursuing his works on the issue of value under the Ancien Régime, he now focuses more specifically on the notion of frivolity and its bearings on the practices of sociability and literary hierarchies.
Cultural history; history of French literature, XVIIth to XVIIIth centuries; history of print culture; economic history; literary value; sociability; ephemera; pamphlets, frivolity; fashion; petit-maîtres; muscadins; bel-esprit
“Drowning in pamphlets”: mediality of the frivolous
“France is flooded with a multitude of pamphlets every day, that the licentiousness of spirit has generated”, wrote Caraccioli. It is common place in the XVIIIth century to complain about the abundance, the profusion, the flood of daily pamphlets that overwhelm the literary spheres, proliferating like rye grass. These pamphlets, short works that one does not bother to bind, are light and handy, passed from one hand to another, moving from the lobby to the boudoir at a lightning speed, then are quickly forgotten, replaced the next day by a flow of new ones. They can be about the most diverse subjects: current affairs, economic projects, literary quarrels, satires on societal mores, tales, novels, anecdotes... The “Pamphlet makers” are never short of ideas, the readers, always eager for new materials, the printing presses run, the slightest idea circulates, creating a hubbub that many contemporaries find deafening and vain, pointless twittering, a reflection of the frivolity of the times, but that also represents a booming market. The proliferation of these ephemeral pamphlets is therefore a reason to reflect on the value and the use of literature, that is not only measured in terms of morality (utile dulci, “please to instruct”, etc.), but also economic and social, at a time when the literary arena is dramatically changing.