Tartuffe, Hugo and Some Poetry

1. Is Tartuffe in fact anti-religious, or does it only attack corruptions of religion?

"Tartuffe and Elmire"  during a 2011 production directed by Jim O'Connor.

“Tartuffe and Elmire” during a 2011 production directed by Jim O’Connor.

Moliere’s “Tartuffe” isn’t anti-religious in my understanding.   If it was taken so at the time, I would think that it was due to a tendency for the “religious” of the time to dwell on outward displays of pious faith.   I am of the opinion that Moliere is attacking the “corruptions of religion” or the hypocrisy found any time that we rely on our own “works” of piety to ensure us that we are saved from the fates of hell.   The play itself is merely a familiar story of a deceptive, scoundrel, swindling a dupe out of his wealth.

"The Musketeer", painted by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier in 1871.  A Romantic French artist, you can imagine the costume in the paining is accurate and one can almost imagine this as young Damis, ready to run Tartuffe through!

“The Musketeer”, painted by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier in 1871. A Romantic French artist, you can imagine the costume in the paining is accurate and one can almost imagine this as young Damis, ready to run Tartuffe through!

But the pious nature of the character “Tartuffe” could appear to be anti-religious if interpreted to an extreme.   But I read nothing in the text that attacks Christ or Christianity.   Even Christ himself attacked such hypocrisy.   It is the foundation of the Christian faith that one not live the kind of life that Tartuffe was pretending to live.   Christ called such men a “nest of vipers”.   Yet, they are found in power in every form of religion.   Religion is not faith.   It is man’s imperfect   response to faith and therefore can become corrupt.

What really impressed me was how the portrayal of such characters is so accurate.   No wonder the play was banned.   I think too that other French writers were influenced by Moliere’s opinion, or it was at least a widely held response.   Dumas’ arch enemy of D’Artagnan, the Cardinal of France is very much this type of man and represents all that Dumas felt was hypocritical of the Catholic power of the period.   Unfortunately Moliere’s portrayal of religious deception is still striking home today.

2. In what respects is Hugo’s Satan a heroic figure? How does Hugo’s account differ from Dante’s?

Victor Hugo, sketched by Auguste Rodin, 1840 - 1917.  A rebel himself, Rodin was known as the father of modern sculpture.

Victor Hugo, sketched by Auguste Rodin, 1840 – 1917. A rebel himself, Rodin was known as the father of modern sculpture.

To refer to Hugo’s Satanic figure as a “hero” in a literary sense is to me, a weak projection.   Yes, like a hero, there is a journey, namely a thunderous plunge into the “abyss” of Biblical fame.   Like a tragic hero, there is the immense loss and despair expressed as Satan realizes the extreme depth of the darkness that his rebellion has led him to.   The obstacles in his way are perhaps represented by the mountain peaks he has to cross and the endless distance between himself and the single spark of light he pursues.   Norton’s introduction refers to him as a “powerful rebel”.   And certainly in the short work, “Et nox facta est”, he is the central, tragic figure.   In this I agree, there is great tragedy as he is thrown down at God’s command, head first like a rocket, groping for something to stop his plunge.   He had no idea how dark, dark could be.   No concept of existence without the Creator present.   He shivers for the first time ever.   He desperation to reach the light defies his own rebellious nature, which is a common feature of defiance, I think.   I’m not sure it is clear where he is in the abyss.   Is it earth just after the creation? In Genesis, it says that after he willed Earth into being, “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2).   Hugo, it seems, has borrowed this imagery.   Of course, in the days that followed, we know that God caused there to be light.   But what is a day to God?   Can a day be ten thousand years?   So, I find it difficult to reconcile whether Hugo is speaking of the original fall of Satan, ( It seems he is because he speaks of things yet to come in the life of Christ), but this place he plunges is not known to us, unless it is the earth, before light.   Interesting, but I don’t like to give that devil any more attention than is necessary, he thrives on it.

3. Discuss and compare the images in any two poems assigned for this week.

Artwork by Kathe Kollwitz in 1897, showing the 1844 rebellion as a group of weavers heads to the owner's property, bent on destruction.

Artwork by Kathe Kollwitz in 1897, showing the 1844 rebellion as a group of weavers heads to the owner’s property, bent on destruction.

Of the Heine and Leopardi poem selections in Norton, the two that attracted my attention the most are Heine’s, “Silesian Weavers” and Leopardi’s, “To Himself“.     All of their poems in the text seemed to run along similar lines.   But these two could easily run together, as the pain of poverty and hunger gives way to the last hope fading. Despair overtakes the hopeful revolutionary as rebellion is crushed and stamped out with violent reprisals.   Of course, I am taking some editorial license here, for while we know what the “Sileasian Weavers” was about, we do not necessarily know the background to Leopardi’s “To Himself”.   In “To Himself“, the line, “…the last illusion is dead“, sounds very much like a disillusioned revolutionary.   “…not only hope is gone, but the desire to be deceived as well.”   Such words speak volumes of life’s disappointments, that you had somehow convinced yourself would be different.   But in the end, you found that you were a fool to believe as you did and hope fades into bitter disillusionment.   In the Silesian Weavers, the despair that leads to revolution is seen in each stanza, “Grinding their teeth,”, “With cold in our bones, with hunger reeling”, and “Who wrings the last penny out of our hides and lets us be shot like dogs besides–“.   Heine’s poem is simple, yet powerful in its imagery.   The two make a good pair.

 

2 thoughts on “Tartuffe, Hugo and Some Poetry

  1. swtrinchet

    Thank you for your answer to the second question. It helped me understand the religious and literary context a great deal more. I don’t have an intimate understanding of Genesis, and the context and analysis helped me to place the reading in a culture and world that I’ve had little exposure to. I find it fascinating that these authors present fictionalized descriptions of places that exist to them but they’ve never experienced. It seems a bit like historical fiction – the basics are known quantities but the details are filled in with creativity.

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  2. bdfleagle Post author

    I have to agree with you, but I think perhaps in the absence of other types of media, forms of expressing thoughts and ideas, this chasing after the mysteries of the Bible was a beginning, a place to start. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to dwell on Satan, but really we still do, the movie and book title lists tell us that.

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