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Playing Simplicity

Polemical Stupidity in the Writing of the French Enlightenment


Robin Howells

Polemical stupidity – a critical concept drawn from Bakhtin – denotes the strategic refusal to understand. It appears most familiarly in the character of the Fool (like Candide), who genuinely does not understand the world, thus unmasking its incoherence. But in literature it can cover too the stance of the narrator or author (who pretends to misunderstand). It also functions at the levels of genre and style, embracing parody and rewriting in general. It is a dialogic or open form of critical engagement. Though it can be found throughout Western literature, polemical stupidity is most richly characteristic of the writing of the French Enlightenment. This book suggests why, and traces its rise and fall as a discursive practice in the century from Pascal to Rousseau. Early chapters consider the concept itself, its emergence in Pascal’s Lettres provinciales, worldliness and unworldliness, and the new writing of 1660-1700 (critical history to fairy tales). The main part of the book, on the age of Enlightenment itself, contains successive chapters on Regency theatre, Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, Marivaux, Voltaire, Diderot, and finally Rousseau who will not play.
Contents: Polemical stupidity – The French Enlightenment – Playfulness – The Fool – Simplicity and questioning – Natures as critique and philosophy – Rewriting and hybrid genres – Worldliness – Surprise and pleasure – The rococo – Comic theatre, letters, the novel – Pascal – The ‘Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes’ – The Lettres persanes – Marivaux – Voltaire – Diderot – Rousseau.