Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

The Modern Theophraste, Or The Rehabilitation of Pierre-Jacques Brillon

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War to vices, not to the vicious

His first opus is very well written, but the next one happens to be more exciting. Indeed, though classified in categories such as Women, Ridicule, Of the Court, Of Gambling, etc., the portraits are here less confined to their subjects. The author’s note is another piece of wit. Brillon stepped away from his then deceased model by assuring that his book was not a book à clef, like La Bruyère’s. “I’ve declared war to vices,” he wrote, “not the vicious.” He claimed not to know the Court well enough to tell about real people’s stories – he nevertheless was quite acquainted with it, as proven by his chapter Of the Court: “To get cured from the lifestyle that once obsessed me like many others, I did not read La Bruyère’s portraits: the disgust of the courtisans convinced me more than any moral sentence. Lend an ear to those who live at the Court, they owe misery their talent of persuasion.” His portraits are quite dark – very grand siècle, indeed. Against ridicule, he wrote a few desperate lines: “Shall we hope for a change?” he asks. “Honestly, I don’t think so. Just in case, let’s write (À tout hasard, écrivons).”

Law & Provincial

Ridicule at Court was unforgivable. Nastiness was not. Brillon confessed in his own book that he was not free from ridicule himself – neither was he from nastiness. The portraits of the “provincials”, or countrymen, are so rude it is almost unbelievable. In France, we call “provincial” anyone living outside of Paris. Sometimes, some “provinciaux” feel like they are treated with contempt from Parisians – even today. They sure were by Brillon, who wrote: “A leopard never changes its spots, mostly if it was born in the middle of a field, or in a city surrounded by woods: such men are savages, a little bit less fierce than the real ones. I probably outrage the Provinciaux, who judge this portrait too mean, and swear not to read the next one. This is how I definitely identify barbarians. Let’s cut it short – and let’s not disrespect the inhabitants of Province; I almost wrote the inhabitants of the bush.” Mr. Brillon did not care about being boycotted in the bookshops of the country where only bad books were sold anyway. What is funny about these portraits is that, despite the magnificent style of their author, they are nowadays a paramount of ridicule.


Conclusion

Pierre-Jacques Brillon did not go any further with literature and focused on his Dictionnaire des Arrêts, ou la Jurisprudence universelle des Parlements de France, a judiciary book published in six in-folio volumes in 1727 – he was then over 50, and died 9 years later. “This compilation is the fruit of a learnt and hard-working man”, concluded FX de Feller in his Dictionnaire historique. It is a pity, as many of his portraits happen to be more entertaining than some of La Bruyère’s. An old and wise man, Mr. Brillon had then forgotten his ridicule literary pretensions but was probably considering his books with tenderness and resignation. As Arthur Rimbaud later said (or almost): One is not serious when... 25.

Thibault Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

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