Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

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

Thig813a

The grand siècle was the paramount of French wit. Under the yoke of the Sun King, the Nobility was reduced to a bunch of courtisans. To be noticed by the King or some important people around him was the surest way to get a promotion, and to show some wit, the surest way to be noticed. But everyone was not witty, and ridicule became the most feared plague of the time. “Ridicule can not be defined,” wrote our author Pierre-Jacques Brillon; “it is useless even to call it a bad quality linked to the sayings or the doings of some. No matter what these people do, they are disliked, hated, despised; with no reason but the ridicule about them. The harder these people try to be kind and nice, the more ridicule they appear – and there is no escaping it.” But even the most witty courtisans had the cruel consciousness of their own vacuity, and ridicule sometimes bordered on drama, as described in the following poem of S. Martin:


“ To serve the Sovereign, or to give oneself a master,

To totally depend on the will of another,

To remain in some places we would like to ignore,

For a few pleasures, to suffer a lot of horror (...),

To kiss every one and to find a friend in no man,

Such is the abridged life of a courtisan.”

To ridicule ridiculousness

The bitter-sweet literature of the time is a faithful mirror of this “préciosité”. Some writers portrayed their contemporaries, ridiculing ridiculousness. La Bruyère was the most successful one. His Caractères’ became a best seller and inspired many authors such as Pierre-Jacques Brillon, a young writer who personally knew his model. Brillon was encouraged by La Bruyère to put out his own collection of portraits in 1696, Portraits Sérieux, galants et critiques (or Serious, Gallant or Critical Portraits). “To deal with the same topics as his model is not enough to deserve the same praises,” wrote a contemporary critic. “This particular writer is to his model what a painter of shop signs would be to Rubens.” Nevertheless, Brillon’s book was well received at the time, and he soon put out a new one, entitled Le Théophraste moderne (or Modern Theophraste, 1699). At the end of the day, our author remained in the shadow of La Bruyère and the copies of his books are not that sought-after nowadays. While reading him lately, I realized how unjust it was, then decided to rehabilitate the work of this author - so help me God.

Lives and romances

Many great authors of the time such as Montreuil or D’Aceilly were considered as inconsistent by the critics of the Enlightenment, because they mostly wrote about casual topics such as their lives at Court, or their romances. In the case of Brillon, things were even worse. He was an imitator. FX de Feller wrote, in his Dictionnary (Liège, 1790): “These bad imitations of a good book enjoyed a short-lived popularity because readers had then developed a taste for books written in the vein of La Bruyère’s”. Should I boldly add that this success was partly due to his talent?

Born in Paris in 1671, Brillon was a man of law from the start – a general prosecutor, and a member of the Grand Conseil of Paris, he had a brilliant career. As a young man, he was attracted to literature. His reading La Bruyère was probably a revelation, so was his meeting him. “I follow Labruyère’s footsteps,” reads his preface, “who loved me enough to encourage me in this way; he was not idolizing his work enough to consider that nothing could be added to it. (...) I was occasionally happy enough to be approved by a man of such good taste – I was flattered, I even thought that it entitled me to write a book.” He was only 25 when he published Portraits Sérieux, galants et critiques (Paris, Michel Brunet – 1696). It features a brilliant author’s note. “This is the first book I offer the readers, and the last if so they wish. I am not the type of stubborn writers who keep on working without the readers’ consent. Else I shall choose to do very early what many have only done too late, and retire from writing.” He eventually did. But not before putting out a second book. Aged 25, he was writing twice as well as most fifty-year-old writers.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions