Jean de La Bruyère
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
At the head of these were Thomas Corneille, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Isaac de Benserade, who were clearly aimed at in the book, as well as innumerable other persons, men and women of letters as well as of society, identifiable by manuscript "keys" compiled by the scribblers of the day. The friendship of Bossuet and protection of the Condés sufficiently defended the author, and he continued to insert fresh portraits of his contemporaries in each new edition of his book, especially in the 4th (1689). Those, however, whom he had attacked were powerful in the French Academy, and numerous defeats awaited La Bruyère before he could make his way into that guarded hold. He was defeated thrice in 1691, and on one memorable occasion he had but seven votes, five of which were those of Bossuet, Boileau, Racine, Paul Pellisson and Bussy-Rabutin.
It was not till 1693 that he was elected, and even then an epigram, which, considering his admitted insignificance in conversation, was not of the worst, lacesit lateri:
- "Quand La Bruyère se présente
- Pourquoi faut il crier haro?
- Pour faire un nombre de quarante
- Ne falloit il pas un zéro?"
His unpopularity was, however, chiefly confined to the subjects of his sarcastic portraiture, and to the hack writers of the time, of whom he was wont to speak with a disdain only surpassed by that of Alexander Pope. His description of the Mercure galant as "immédiatement au dessous de rien" (immediately below nothing) is the best-remembered specimen of these unwise attacks; and would of itself account for the enmity of the editors, Fontenelle and the younger Corneille. La Bruyère's discourse of admission at the Academy, one of the best of its kind, was, like his admission itself, severely criticized, especially by the partisans of the "Moderns" in the "Ancient and Modern" quarrel. With the Caractères, the translation of Theophrastus, and a few letters, most of them addressed to the prince de Condé, it completes the list of his literary work, with the exception of a curious and much-disputed posthumous treatise.
La Bruyère died very suddenly, and not long after his admission to the Academy. He is said to have been struck dumb in an assembly of his friends, and, being carried home to the Hôtel de Condé, to have expired of apoplexy a day or two afterwards. It is not surprising that, considering the recent panic about poisoning, the bitter personal enmities which he had excited and the peculiar circumstances of his death, suspicions of foul play should have been entertained, but there was apparently no foundation for them. Two years after his death appeared certain Dialogues sur le Quiétisme, alleged to have been found among his papers incomplete, and to have been completed by the editor.
As these dialogues are far inferior in literary merit to La Bruyère's other works, their genuineness has been denied. But the straightforward and circumstantial account of their appearance given by this editor, the Abbé du Pin, a man of acknowledged probity, the intimacy of La Bruyère with Bossuet, whose views in his contest with Fénelon these dialogues are designed to further, and the entire absence, at so short a time after the alleged author's death, of the least protest on the part of his friends and representatives, seem to be decisive in their favour.