By elevating the monarchy, Louis XIV hoped not only to increase its power but also to breed respect and awe, so that opposition to the royal will would savor of sacrilege, and be inhibited. To achieve this end, Louis XIV wanted not only semi-mystical rituals but also a theatre in which Divine Kingship could be enacted. Hence Versailles. We know all this, because The Duc de Saint-Simon recorded it. In his insultingly tiny Versailles room, this noble diarist recorded life in the court of the Sun King. Prudery,malice, and consideration of status filled his pages and produced a masterpiece…
Saint-Simon was born in Versailles and it remained the center of his universe until he lost his place at court in 1724. Then , his memoirs stopped and he lived his last thirty years so obscurely that we know little of him. Without the intrigues of Versailles, life was without interest, and this was true not only for Saint-Simon but also for most of the nobility of France. That was exactly Louis’s intention. This monstrous palace, still the greatest in Europe, was the wonder of its day.
The palace roof covered literally acres of rooms- enough to house the government, the foreign embassies, the personal court of the king, his brother and their children, their mistresses, their bastards, and the hundreds of aristocrats who were given the special blue cloak that indicated their right to free rooms and free food. Outside the palace there were miles of parterres, scores of fountains, beyong anything previously known to the seventeenth-century.
Everything was larger than life, deliberately so; for Louis XIV meant to proclaim not only his own strength but also the grandeur of France and the impotence of nobility. Heraldic beasts the aristocrats might be, but they were caged. Versailles, the army, occasionally diplomacy- these careers were open to them as long as the king regarded them with favor. Otherwise they faced exile in the provinces: dullness and disgrace. This is the fear that runs through Saint-Simon’s memoirs and spreads terror as soon as it looms into reality.
However, Versailles was not, by present standards, all beauty and grace. There were no bathrooms, and the stench of the stairways, where courtiers frequently relieved themselves, was appalling. Saint-Simon refers to the odor of a royal person and the foulness of his breath as the most natural things in the world, and indeed they were. This lack of hygiene introduced into Saint-Simon’s world a character as alarming as the king himself-Death. Typhoid, scarlet fever, putrid fever, yellow fever, and diptheria skidded around the corridors of Versailles, knocking out a prince of the blood here or an obscure courtier there.
The pattern of power could change overnight, bringing hope or disaster to the court. And this, too, added to the hothouse atmosphere, driving people to an extravagance of license or piety. Death, corruption, disease- these were but the shadows in that brilliant gilded world that was to set a pattern for monarchs and their courts for a hundred years; to understand this world through Saint-Simon eyes helps us understand the courts of eighteenth-century Europe . They all poured millions into building their palaces and adorning them with all the arts and crafts that adorned the life of man.
Versailles contains a great theatre and Louis drew to his court a great galaxy of talent: the tragedies of Corneille, Racine’s masterpieces, as well as a stage for Moliere, the greatest comic dramatist France has ever known. Of course, it was a private world, for beyond Versailles lay the twenty million Frenchmen who toiled to maintain Louis XIV, his army and his ambition. They rarely stray across the pages of Saint-Simon. Yet there were times when even he had to take note of their plight. In 1709, famine swept France in the wake of the disastrous war with Spain, and hundreds of thou
s died of starvation.
Briefly, the blackened faces of the peasants obtruded in Saint-Simon’s world and sent a frisson of horror down his aristocratic spine. And this is the key to the deepest tragedy of Louis XIV’s world: he created a mirage of aristocratic elegance, grandeur, wit, and indulgence played out against a background of ostentatious art and beauty, but totally divorced from the nation he led.
An aristocrat’s social obligation was to the monarch and to the state, to Louis and Versailles, not to the people and the countryside. This became the pattern of all European aristocracies except the British. The result was the tumbrels, the guillotines, the gallows, and the firing squads, as it is bound to be for any aristocracy that put self-indulgence and loyalty to its own class and its own ruler before its obligations to society. Civilizations and cultures that ignore the condition of ordinary humanity end in ruin. That is the moral lesson of Saint-Simon, as appropriate to our own day as to his.
The courtiers of Versailles would have thought it in no way wrong to spend thrity million on a Velasquez while the peasants starved in rat infested huts. Their private world of privilege and pleasure divorced them from the realities of life; and so to read Saint-Simon is not merely to enter into a world alien to our own, although it is alien, but also to see ourselves, even in the distorting mirrors of time. Nothing may be the same, but we always remain so. The privileged are always at risk, and they are never more so than when they look fixedly inward to their own world.
Perhaps that is the meaning of Saint-Simon. At first site a world strange and remote living in a closed society that forced their personalities into the most exotic shapes. But was we read and brood, this world of envy, malice, ambition, piety, love and loyalty becomes recognizably our own.
As Louis XIV told him, Saint-Simon talked too much; certainly he wrote too much, but little was missed by that spider who watched from his little web in Versailles, darting out at the least ripple on the glittering surface of the court to seize his victim and wrap him or her up in the coils of his prose, preserving them for all time. He thus achieved the immortality and the fame that he thought were his by rank. Without his skill, his dedication and stamina, greater even than that of the bourgeois clerk he despised,he would be but a name in genealogy. However, there he is, detestable as a man, yet great as an artist.
The Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), like Voltaire, was a courtier at Louis XIV’s Versailles, and his memoirs, which took him a dozen years to complete and were not published until 1788, over 30 years after his death, are the most famous memoirs ever written. They are also among the most voluminous, at 13,536 pages in the eight-volume Pléiade edition, admirably condensed to some 1,500 pages in this new edition of Lucy Norton’s fine translation.
Like Voltaire, Saint-Simon saw the end of France’s immemorial glory approaching, though he viewed that end from a sharply different angle. In his memoirs, the Duc treats Voltaire like a scurrilous upstart and dismantles any claim he might have to literary eminence. Voltaire, whose real name was Arouet, was the son of a notary who had served as the Duc’s lawyer, and was therefore a lowborn fellow. He was exiled, wrote the Duc,
for writing monstrously satirical, monstrously impudent verses. I should not waste time over such trifles, had not this Arouet, now a famous poet and academician under the pseudonym Voltaire, also become, after many disastrous adventures, something of a personage in the world of letters, even winning a kind of reputation among certain sorts of people.
In Saint-Simon’s estimation, the most celebrated writer of his time is transformed into a jumped-up homunculus, a guttersnipe whom no person of true distinction would regard with anything but contempt.
Saint-Simon was accustomed to delivering such pronouncements from on high. Although he was barely five feet tall and had a voice like a squeeze-toy, no one was more ferociously punctilious about matters of honor and ceremony. He was a traditionalist hothead who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including the king. Read More: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1623/article_detail.asp