From what I’ve read of Moliere, The Misanthrope is by far and away his best play… and it’s only okay.
My translator was Richard Wilbur, who translates for the rhyme, insisting that the rhyming is vital to the play. I wish he had not bothered. To make the rhyme and rhythm more or less work in English, the verses have been bloated by filler words. As my copy of the text did not have the original French version alongside the English translation– I do not know whether to blame Wilbur or Moliere for my resultant queasy stomach.
The eponymous Misanthrope of the play is Alceste. Tis true, he despises humanity– save for one woman, Celimene… a silly coquette most definitely not worth his exception. Ironically, Celimene –whom the Misanthrope loves (or thinks he does)– probably brings more misery into his life than the people that he hates. Ain’t it the way?…
Much of the play is Alceste defending his human-hating views to others, like his friend Philinte. Philinte is an agreeable bloke, and he is thus well-liked by his fellow man. And perhaps related to the fact they like him, he likes them, too. This love-fest nauseates Alceste, who believes that Philinte gives his love away too easily. To Alceste, “friendship is a sacred thing.” He believes it is a “profanation to bestow the name of ‘friend’ on one you hardly know.” Tell THAT to the Facebook millions.
“The friend of mankind is no friend of mine,” states Alceste, maintaining that any man who thinks ALL men are worthy of respect debases the currency of honor, leaving the term with no value at all. “To honor all men is to honor none,” says Alceste, who believes that a worthy man does not keep society with villains. “Some men I hate for being rogues. The others I hate because they treat rogues like brothers.”
I can sympathize with Alceste on this. I myself have a similar gut feeling, that by being all buddy-buddy with some scoundrel I am in some way condoning his behavior. Let the mommies of jerks suckle them life-long with unconditional love… My love most definitely comes with conditions, number one of which is that you’re not a jerk. You must DESERVE my love.
I feel like I can feel Alceste’s frustration when he demands– “what, in this shallow age, is not debased?” Man’s corruption, he complains, “aggravates my spleen.” He has decided that when it comes to humanity, “I hate the whole degraded lot.”
Unlike Philinte, Alceste does not value the the opinion of his fellow men. And in fact, if they started admiring him, that would be a sure sign he was doing something wrong. “All men are so detestable in my eyes,” he says, “I should be sorry if they thought me wise.”
The problem that both Alceste and myself quickly run into this… once we start demanding that our fellow men must “deserve” our love… Who in the hell among us really DESERVES love?
I give Alceste credit, here… he keeps to his convictions and ideals, and he follows his reasoning to its logical conclusion… If no one deserves his love, and if he refuses to mingle with those who don’t, then the choice is clear… He must separate himself entirely from the whole filthy species…
“When I survey the scene of human folly,
Finding on every hand base flattery,
injustice, fraud, self-interest, treachery…
Ah, it’s too much; mankind has grown so base,
I mean to break with the whole human race.”
It is Alceste’s great misfortune to be an honest man. No wonder the world is so hard and ugly to him… For society is a towering house of cards built upon lies. At the very base of this flimsy house are the trembling cards whose faces tell us that civilization is worth its costs, that there’s value in continuing the game. A man running around spouting truths is a dangerous man to have around anywhere near Society’s shaky house of cards.
Alceste sees no distinction between dishonesty and the insincerity displayed in polite manners. Philinte tries to explain how necessary politeness is in Society… “Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone/ if we were wholly frank with everyone?” Philinte is probably correct when he maintains that society is better off populated by people who are polite, courteous, and respectful of customs than a bunch of A-holes.
“I lack their art of telling pleasant lies,” responds Alceste, blaming this for his failure to rise in society… “It’s all too obvious that I don’t possess the virtues necessary for success.”
And here we begin to skirt around an issue which comes up in the works of Moliere from time to time… It’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing… When people condemn the ways of their fellow men… which comes first?– Are misanthropes first rejected by their fellow men and so become resentful of them, convincing themselves that all those delicious grapes their neighbors are enjoyng are actually sour? Or… do misanthropes truly reject society first, and only afterwards does Society defensively dismiss (or even go after) them? My guess is this… if the individual standing outside the plate glass of society is bitter about it, then his alienation from society was probably not entirely his own choice.
I know in my own case, the rejection has always gone both ways (which means, according to my own theory, that some of my judgmental condemnation of my neighbors’ silliness comes from being rejected myself… and I won’t dispute that). I remember that when I “dropped out” of what I lump under the name of “the corporate world,” I honestly believed that it was me who was rejecting them. It took me about a year’s worth of gained perspective to realize that my rejection of them was just as equally their rejection of me. In fact, looking back, I see that I was spit from the corporate machine like a seed pinched out from beneath two squeezing fingers. It was a sort of evolution at work. The corporate species simply would not thrive if composed of a population of types like yours truly.
Naively, Alceste– in that perverse and subverted romanticism of the cynic and bitter social critic– imagines that society could still exist even if populated by honest men. “Let men behave like men,” he says. “Let them display their inmost hearts in everything they say. Let the heart speak, and let our sentiments not mask themselves in silly compliments.” He is convinced that polite society’s acceptance (and thus “condonement” [to apparently coin a word]) of man’s inhumanity to man is the manure which fertilizes the field of weeds that is civilization. “It’s flatterers like you,” he tells one character, “whose foolish praise nourishes all the vices of these days.”
Conversely, Philinte asserts that “too stern a virture makes one stiff and rude.” Anything– even virtue– taken to an extreme becomes a vice. Philinte’s highest ethical aspiration is that of being “noble in moderation.”
It is Philinte who offers one of the most disturbing ethical arguments in all of philosophy. Moliere was not the first to put this forward this line of thought. The church fathers also used it as one of the justifications for the existence of evil in the world. And probably cultures since the dawn of Man have recognized it (in the sense that struggle makes us stronger). Philinte’s version goes something like this… if all men were “frank and kind and just”, then people would never have to exercise their virtues like patience and forgiveness.
Philinte appears to possess one of the most geniunely forgiving souls in literature… “I take men as they are or let them be,” he says, “and teach my soul to bear their fraility.” For him, it is silly and useless to condemn faults which are just part of human nature… “It’s no more a matter of disgust/ that men are knavish, selfish, and unjust, / than that the vulture dines upon the dead.”
The fact that our Misanthrope, Alceste, has allowed himself to fall in love with the annoying Celimene makes me wonder if Alceste’s hatred of mankind extends to himself. He realizes that she is “vicious” and “base”– and yet he can’t escape his lust for her– and lust it what it appears to me it should be labelled… for when he does speak well of his infatuation, it is merely to praise her “beauty and grace.”
For her part, though she enjoys leading him on, Celimene is equally unappreciative of Alceste’s character. She says of him that “he lives in deadly terror of agreeing. / Twould make him seem an ordinary being.”
Celemine, as do we all, has her excuses for her behavior. As she freely admits, “alas, at twenty, one is terrified of solitude.” And looking around at the young crowd– and remembering my own youth– I can see just how profoundly correct Celemine is.
Certain themes crop up in multiple Moliere plays. One of them is the idea that value systems are relative… depending, for a few examples, upon one’s age or upon one’s personal tastes and preferences. Celimene lets loose a cascade of such observations when she defends here life-style choices against the contemptuous judgment of a woman of more advanced years. Her responses include the following, all of which– like so much social criticism in Moliere– hit Society right on its big clown nose…
“She let’s the world believe that she’s a prude / to justify her loveless solitude, / and strives to put a brand of moral shame/ on all the graces that she cannot claim./ But still she’d love a lover.”
“When all one’s charms are gone, it is, I’m sure, /good strategy to be devout and pure:/ it makes one seem a little less forsaken.”
“I think we either blame or praise / according to our taste and length of days./ There’s a time of life for coquetry, / and there’s a season, too, for prudery.”
One of my favorite of Alceste’s tirades is when he lets loose against bad verse (which I find rather ironic [purposefully?] considering the mediocrity of much of the verse in The Misanthrope). Here’s a sampling…
“This artificial style that’s all the fashion,/ has neither taste, nor honesty, nor passion./ It’s nothing but a sort of wordy play, / and nature never spoke in such a way.”
“No fault is worse/ than that of writing frigid, lifeless verse”
“There’s no excuse for printing tedious rot– unless one writes for bread.”
“I might, by chance, write something just as shoddy; / but then I wouldn’t show it to everybody.”
By the end of the play, Alceste has decided he must “flee this bitter world where vice is king, / and seek some spot unpeopled and apart/ where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.”
Lastly, before I end today’s post, I want to point out that this is not Moliere’s only play in which he advertises his own past successes upon the stage. In The Misanthrope he has Philinte remark that, “indeed, we’re like those brothers in the play called School For Husbands“– a play which just happens to have been written by Moliere, himself.
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More from Hammering Shield on Moliere…