*Fontenelle, Bernard de
Fontenelle, Bernard de
Bernard de Fontenelle had ceased to write works of literary or philosophical importance by the date of his admission to the French Academy on 5 May 1691. He remained an important literary figure, taking part in the defense of the superiority of modern literature over the antique, and he wrote 69 panegyrics on members of the Académie Royale des Sciences who died during his tenure as permanent secretary from 1697. Those of his works which can be called essays were mostly written by 1688, when Fontenelle was 31. The principal exception, the treatise on religion known as De l’origine des fables (Of the origin of fables) and first published in 1724, a reworking of an earlier Sur l’histoire (On history), used to be thought of as an early work. It seems in fact to have been composed between 1691 and 1699, which actually changes its meaning, making its insinuations much more daring.
Fontenelle came from Rouen in Normandy, and Voltaire said of him that “he knew how to speak Norman,” which means that he knew how to insinuate what he meant without even ironically stating it. Perhaps Voltaire was being unfair, but Fontenelle’s early works reverberate with compromising innuendos, suggestions, implications, and questions, without actually stating very much. His cultivated literary technique makes straight-faced and perfectly defensible statements bristle with implied skepticism about conservative religious orthodoxy, and leaves the reader’s mind teeming with questions which Fontenelle never presumed directly to ask. It was a technique Fontenelle might have found constraining, but which he adopted with relish, and it constitutes his chief contribution to the essay form.
Fontenelle’s first work was the two-volume Dialogues des morts and Nouveaux dialogues des morts (Dialogues from the Dead), two sets of 18 dialogues published anonymously in 1683. Loosely based on Lucian as translated by Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt, the Dialogues bring together the most unlikely of conversational partners, but permit pointed exchanges. Then appeared the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686; Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds), which, though dialogue in form, comes quite near to being a series of conversational essays. It is an astonishing work of astronomical vulgarization, based on the 1656 translation of Discoveries of a New World (1638–40) by John Wilkins. Its tone is provocative. Addressed to a woman, it grossly and amusingly simplifies large concepts: “The whole of philosophy is founded on only two things: we have inquiring minds and poor eyesight.”
In 1684 Pierre Bayle put his newly founded Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters) virtually at Fontenelle’s disposal, although he may well never have met him. In January 1685 he printed Fontenelle’s obituary essay on one of Fontenelle’s famous uncles, the “Éloge de Pierre Corneille” (Elegy of Pierre Corneille), critical, biographical, knowledgeable, and important for the historical background. From September to November 1685 Bayle published Fontenelle’s treatise on the number nine, then other pieces designed to flatter him, before anonymously publishing Fontenelle’s own daring “Relation de l’île de Bornéo” (Report on the island of Borneo), a strongly satirical account of religious disputes presenting a conflict between three queens representing respectively Calvinism, Judaism, and Catholicism. Voltaire, who mostly disliked Fontenelle’s oblique style, thought that he had risked imprisonment in the Bastille by allowing the “Relation” to appear.
It was possibly to avoid trouble that Fontenelle then immediately published two highly orthodox essays, “Le Triomphe de la religion sous Louis le Grand” (The triumph of religion under Louis the Great) and the “Discours sur la patience” (Discourse on patience). However, he also published his best-known essay, Histoire des oracles (1687; The History of Oracles), adapted from Antonius van Dale’s 1683 De oraculis ethnicorum, whose purpose was to destroy a commonly used proof of Christ’s divinity, that the pagan oracles which had been thought to foretell his coming fell silent after his birth. Fontenelle removed van Dale’s identification of Catholicism with superstition, showing that the oracles were not the work of demons, and that they did not stop with the coming of Christ. On the other hand, Fontenelle also opened up a whole array of further questions about the changing forms historically taken by the search for the meaning of human experience.
In 1686 Fontenelle, who had kept away from metaphysics in the Conversations, also published a criticism of Malebranche. His “Doutes sur le système physique des causes occasionnelles” (Doubts about the physical system of occasional causes) criticized the way Malebranche had preserved the credibility of the immortality of the soul by making human knowledge independent of perception by bodily organs.
Fontenelle’s literary registers had appeared insubstantial and inconsequential, but he raised by insinuation and innuendo a range of questions covering everything from the nature of the cosmos to the evolution of human belief, and from the triviality of religious disputes to the metaphysics of knowledge. His intervention in major disputes was to be rounded off with the Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688; Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns), in which another serious, complex issue is simplified to appear trivial. The whole question is “whether the trees which used to be in our countryside were taller than today’s.” If they were not, then nature has not exhausted itself, and modern authors can equal those of antiquity. In fact, Fontenelle maintains that the race has grown toward its maturity from former childhood, and at their best modern works are superior to those of classical Greece and Rome. Fontenelle, as usual, has protected a radical imaginative power with a flippancy of style and apparent subject.
If De l’origine des fables really was an early work, it is perfectly possible to take it at face value and understand it as an essay in intellectual archaeology. Before 1680 Fontenelle’s development as a writer makes it unlikely that he was deliberately raising the question of whether fables were early attempts at a scientific explanation of the universe, replaced by the Christian revelation, but with the implication that Genesis, rather than revealed truth, might also have been adapted to a particular stage in our understanding of the origins of the cosmos. After about 1690, it is more likely that Fontenelle would have been raising that question, for “The more ignorant we are, and the less experience we have, the more miracles we see.” The chances are that the text was relatively late, and intended to be subversive.
Fontenelle’s contribution to the essay form was therefore principally to use the structured format to write at the same time in a multiplicity of registers. He liked to affect a lighthearted salon style, but had penetrating observations to make about the ultimately important subjects. He wrote half a dozen plays and operas, and some lightweight verse, but not even the dialogues gave him the form he really needed. That was the essay, but the essay of tongue-in-cheek pretense, which he brought to a balanced perfection it has scarcely known before or since.
Bernard le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle. Nephew of the dramatist Pierre Corneille and the poet and dramatist Thomas Corneille. Born 11 February 1657 in Rouen. Studied at a Jesuit college, Rouen, from 1664; studied law, 1672–77. Moved to Paris; involved in literary circles and frequented many salons, especially those of Mesdames de Lambert, de Tencin, Geoffrin, and du Deffand. Contributor, Le Mercure Galant (The gallant Mercury), 1677–81. Elected to the French Academy, 1691. Permanent secretary, Académie Royale des Sciences, from 1697, and edited its Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences (History of the Royal Academy of Science), 1699–1740, which published éloges on many eminent scientists. Patronized by the Regent, receiving a pension and a lodging in the Palais-Royal, early 17008–31. Elected to the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles-Lettres, 1701; Member, Arcadian Academy of Rome, Royal Society of London, and the Academies of Berlin, Nancy, and Rouen. Died in Paris, 9 January 1757.
Essays and Related Prose
Dialogues des morts and Nouveaux dialogues des morts, 2 vols., 1683; edited by Donald Schier, 1965, and Jean Dagen, 1971; as Dialogues from the Dead, translated by John Hughes, 1708; as Dialogues of Fontenelle, translated by Ezra Pound, 1917
Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, 1686; enlarged edition, 1687; edited by Robert Shackleton, 1955, and A.Calame, 1967; as A Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds, translated by W.D.Knight, 1687; as A Discovery of New Worlds, translated by Aphra Behn, 1688; as A Plurality of Worlds, translated by John Glanvill, 1695; as Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, translated by William Gardiner, 1715, Elizabeth Gunnig, 1803, and H.A. Hargreaves, 1990
Histoire des oracles, 1687; edited by Louis Maigron, 1908; as The History of Oracles, translated by Aphra Behn, 1699
Lettres galantes du Chevalier d’Her***, 1687; edited by Daniel Delafarge, 1961; as Letters of Gallantry, translated by John Ozell, 1715
Digression sur les anciens et les modernes, 1688; edited by Robert Shackleton, 1955
Éloges historiques de tous les academiciens morts depuis ce renouvellement, 2 vols., 1709–20; revised edition, as Éloges des Académiciens de I’Académie Royale des Sciences, 2 vols., 1731; selections as Choix d’éloges des savants, edited by D.Bourel and others, 2 vols., 1981; selections as The Lives of the French, Italian and German Philosophers, translated by John Chamberlayne, 1717
De l’origine des fables (treatise), 1724; edited by Jean-Raoul Carré, 1932
Textes choisis, edited by M.Roelens, 1966
Rêveries diverses: Opuscules littéraires et philosophiques, edited by Alain Niderst, 1994
Other writings: poetry, plays, operas, and works on literature, the French theater, and science.
Collected works edition: OEuvres completes, edited by Alain Niderst, 5 vols., 1990–93 (in progress; 6 vols. projected).
Delorme, Suzanne, “Contribution à la bibliographie de Fontenelle,” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 10, no. 4 (October-December 1957):300–09
Bott, François, L’Entretnetteur: Esquisses pour un portrait de M. de Fontenelle, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991
Cosentini, John W., Fontenelle’s Art of Dialogue, New York: King’s Crown, 1952
Maigron, Louis, Fontenelle: L’Homme, l’oeuvre, l’influence, Paris: Plon, 1906
Marsak, Leonard, Bernard de Fontenelle: The Idea of Science in the French Enlightenment, Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1959
Niderst, Alain, Fontenelle à la recherche de lui-même, Paris: Nizet, 1972
Niderst, Alain, editor, Fontenelle: Actes du colloque de Rouen, 1987, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1989
Niderst, Alain, Fontenelle, Paris: Plon, 1991
Rendall, Steven F., “Fontenelle and His Public,” MLN 86, pt. 2 (1971):496–508
Williams, Charles G.S., editor, Racine, Fontenelle: Actes du XXIe colloque de la North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature, Ohio State University, Columbus, 6–8 April 1989, Paris and Seattle: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature, 1990
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