Formation of the theory

History of the insinuation of doubt

In 1674, a famous author named Boileau who was seeking to assert his magisterium over the world of French letters published his Art poétique in which, among other things, he distributed praise (rarely), criticism (abundandly) and condemnation (frequently). His friend Moliere, deceased the previous year, did not escape criticism, hé whose Art might have received the prize; Had he been less a friend to the public in his learned portraits, Had he not made his figures grimace so much, And abandoned, for the silly, the agreeable and refined, And shamelessly combined Terence and Tabarin [a snake-oil salesman of the Pont Neuf]. In the ridiculous bag in which Scapin envelops himself I no longer recognise the author of the Misanthrope… (Art poétique, III, 394-400)

We know today that this union of opposites that Boileau criticised in Moliere was deliberate: on the one hand because he held dear the conviction of not excluding any form of comedy, on the other hand because this union of opposites was at the heart of the galant aesthetic that had been progressively developed in urbane circles and to which Moliere adhered. But Boileau had long been engaged in a merciless quarrel against the “Moderns” — he was on the front lines when, thirteen years later (1687), the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes openly broke out — and he condemned the fundamentally modern movement that was the galant aesthetic with all his being. As far as comic theatre was concerned, all that strayed from the model of Ancient comedy symbolised by Terence, the model of measured and honest comedy, was in Boileau’s eyes necessarily an abomination. It is not that Boileau absolutely wanted to criticise his friend Moliere: three years later in his “Épître VII” (dedicated to Racine), he praised him enthusiastically; simply, in his Art poétique where he sought to set himself up as the legislator of French letters — and in which he legislated in the name of the Ancients —, he was naturally drawn to cite as exemplary only the “learned portraits” (doctes peintures) of the Misanthrope — alone worthy of Terence and thus alone worthy of being imitated — and to warn his readers not to canonise Moliere as the patron saint of the comic genre.

When one bears in mind that Boileau’s Art poétique is the pedestal on which, first, 18th century literary taste, then later the 19th century literary canon was established, one can understand that every successive generation since that time was sensitive to the “disparities” that Boileau had invited them to see in Moliere’s comic oeuvre. It was with this conviction firmly anchored in his spirit, a conviction shared by nearly all his contemporaries, that Pierre Louÿs began to questions Moliere’s works.

How to become a compulsive liar

While the schools of the 3rd Republic celebrated Moliere as the most accomplished representative of the spirit of the French language and veritable symbol of the French nation (in opposition to the German nation), they nevertheless continued to pass down Boileau’s lesson on the “disparities” of Moliere’s comic oeuvre. Into this world appeared a man of letters, a talented poet and novelist whose glory days came at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, who is still admired today for some of his works, in particular La Femme et le pantin, and who retains a veritable aura among fans of erotic literature, Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925). He was persuaded, like all his contemporaries, of the disparities in the works of Moliere, mixing genius and weakness. Above all, he was persuaded that the veritable spirit of the French language was not embodied by the disparate Moliere, but by Pierre Corneille, and he had long tried the patience of his correspondents with his admiration of the three giants of French poetry that were, in his eyes, Ronsard, Corneille and Hugo: an admiration that became focused, over the years, almost exclusively on Corneille.

Beguiled by Corneille

A collector of rare texts and books, Louÿs read extensively and, concerning 17th century texts, liked to hear in them, be it directly or indirectly, the voice of Pierre Corneille. The decisive element, as we have explained (Origins of the theory), was the publication in 1918 by the publisher Payot of the first volume (the second would appear in 1919) of a book by Abel Lefranc, professor at the Collège de France, entitled Sous le masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby [Beneath Shakespeare’s Mask: William Stanley, 6th Count of Derby]. Louÿs had already re-read Moliere’s Amphitryon and had been surprised to find a Moliere in which there were none of the disparities he had been taught to see; one that managed irregular verse with grace. He had also noticed that the other play by Moliere that used the same type of versification, Psyché, was published three years later with a notice informing the reader that Corneille had taken care of three quarters of the versification. Bolstered by the example of Abel Lefranc’s analysis of Shakespeare and decided to draw attention to himself by launching a particularly iconoclastic position, he did not hesitate to take the plunge: Amphitryon had to be by Corneille, as did everything good in Moliere’s writings.

A specialist of literary hoaxes and pseudonyme

Louÿs might not have convinced himself of his theory so easily had he not himself been a veritable specialist of literary hoaxes and pseudonyms. His fame, it is known, was obtained by passing off a collection of poems in the classical style that he had composed, the Chansons de Bilitis, as a translation of the work of a Greek poetess contemporary of Sapho. In addition, parallel to his “official” literary works, Louÿs never ceased to increase the number of his publications, sometimes erudite (in particular in the journal l’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et des curieux), sometimes erotic, all published under a positively stupefying variety of pseudonyme.

Attributional delirium

Even his very admiring biographer, Jean-Paul Goujon (Pierre Louÿs, Fayard, 2002), had difficulty justifying his obsession with attributions: “Louÿs certainly may have been raving in some of his conclusions or interpretations” (“Louÿs a certes pu divaguer dans certaines de ses conclusions ou interprétations”, p. 750). Recognising that he had gone too far, J.-P. Goujon backed off before most of the other attributions but, seeking to find some silver lining in the dark clouds that enshrouded the last years of Louÿs’s life (marked by one of the most terrible declines imaginable) he attempted to save his most famous of attributional ravings, the attribution of Moliere’s master-works to Corneille, at all costs. J.-P. Goujon thus became the champion of Louÿs’s cause; to put it in legal terms, he “investigated for the prosecution”, seeking to justify or approve all of Louÿs’s claims, without placing on the other side of the balance even the slightest element susceptible to contradicting him. Yet it would have been a sound practice to remind readers at this stage that Louÿs’s attributional delirium might have taken root in the penchant he had had all his life for pseudonyms and “secret” publications. For, strangely enough, in the rest of his biography, J.-P. Goujon admires Louÿs for the way he had of playing with the different facets of his personality, yet he carefully avoids comparing this truly exceptional particularity of Louÿs’s with the obsession he had with ascribing to Corneille this same taste for pseudonyms and secret publications. For a man who, according to the witnesses of his time — and much to the chagrin of his biographer —, lived, after the death of his brother Georges (1917), in a state of distress that left him only rare moments of lucidity, and who to soothe his suffering and depression consumed litres of alcohol on top of cocaine, it is easy to understand that he would have been prone to projecting on others his own obsession with split literary personalities. Ascribing to the grand Corneille, whom he admired more than anyone, his own propensity towards a split personality, was a way of putting himself closer to Corneille.

Reasons for real delirium

Louÿs’s attributional ravings might not have reached such proportions if he had been in full possession of his wits at the time when he launched his “Corneille theory”. That his disciples conceal this aspect of the question is only natural since they have once and for all set up their master as the ingenious inventor of a truth that needed only him to emerge after three centuries. It is more regrettable that Louÿs’s biographers, from whom one would expect perfect honesty in their intellectual approach, should fall into the same trap. It is therefore disappointing that Jean-Paul Goujon carefully removes his chapter on the Corneille-Moliere theory from the chronological continuity in which it emerged: he is thus able to mask the fact that Louÿs threw himself heart and soul into this business at a time when, in all other aspects of his life, he was suffering the consequences of the most utter physical and mental decline. “Louÿs has not left home in several years. For the past few months, he has lived in bed and lived on a liquid diet: on average 2 bottles of champagne a day, 3 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of Mariani. In addition, morphine and cocaine. The result was to be expected.” (Léautaud, Journal, May 22, 1922, cited by J.P. Goujon, work cited, p. 777) “A similarly excruciating testimony from Fernand Gregh’s L’Age de fer: ‘He [Louÿs] spent his nights awake, slept one day out of three, drank Mariani wine in incredible doses, three or four bottles a day, smoked sixty to eighty cigarettes every twenty-four hours, without counting the use of several classic poisons.’” (Goujon, p. 777)

One can understand how, over the course of these stretches of days and nights without sleep, Louÿs could have blackened hundreds or even thousands of pages, accumulating “evidence” for his thesis, that is to say, in reality, recopying lists of thousands of lines of Corneille and Moliere’s verse with the conviction that they possessed common characteristics in terms of style and versification, and even in their linguistic “ticks”: interminable lists justified in his troubled mind by the fact that it was, for him, all the work of a single writer, a Corneille signing sometimes Corneille sometimes Moliere. We will see further along, in our study on “style”, what credit such demonstrations merit.

How to invent a secret in the absence of all mystery

Moliere’s many enemies accused him of EVERYTHING in his lifetime — of having plagiarised Italian and Spanish authors, of having borrowed from the memoirs provided by his admirers (see for example the texts from 1663 relative to the querelle de L’École des femmes), of being a dangerous libertine, and of course of being a cuckold (N.B. He began to play the roles of cuckolds well before getting married), without forgetting of course being accused of marrying his own daughter(!) — there is only one thing of which he was never accused: the very idea of a literary hoax never once occurred to any of his many virulent enemies, even those who would have him and his books burned at the stake. There would have been matter for a lovely attack, but the idea that Moliere’s works could have been written by anyone else was simply inconceivable.

The thesis of absolute secrecy

Since, during Moliere’s own lifetime and in the decades that followed his death, not the slightest shadow of a doubt appeared regarding his status as an author, Louÿs and his followers were reduced to inventing their “Corneille theory” on the principle of absolute secrecy — fundamental principles of all modern-day conspiracy theories. In sum, Moliere’s contemporaries remained oblivious because the collaboration between Moliere and Corneille remained utterly secret.

Secrecy, or the piling up of “new discoveries”

However, this sort of postulation of utter secrecy — in light of the fact that Moliere’s life (from his return to Paris in 1658 to his death in 1673) was so extraordinarily public, spied on and decried by his enemies, as the most recent biography of Moliere (by Roger Duchêne, Paris, Fayard, 1998) remarkably shows — supposes that readers of the theory admit without question and with the purest of faith the affirmations of Pierre Louÿs. From there arises the necessity of complementing this invitation into the “faith” with a piling up of affirmations of all kinds, each more unfounded than the last.

The most recent discoveries of Pierre Louÿs’s disciples consist of two new, fantastical, affirmations: on the one hand, that Moliere held the status of Louis XIV’s court jester, a situation which prevented contemporaries from taking the risk of divulging a secret of which everyone was aware; on the other hand, that Moliere, like all other author-actors, merely lent his name to literary personalities that wished to remain anonymes.

France and Holland, or the impossibility of keeping secrets at court

We will demonstrate further along that these affirmations have no basis in reality. In the mean time, we would like to remind our readers at this stage that the followers of Louÿs, like their master, forged a completely fantastical image of the 17th century for themselves. For one, since the reign of Louis XIII, there has been no official court jester and when Moliere was painted as a “fool” (bouffon) by his enemies, it is in the sense (common at the time), of a mere stooge whose comic schtick relies upon clownish antics (we will see that the texts which use the term bouffon are quite unambiguous). For another, to imagine that Louis XIV could forbid everyone from divulging a commonly known secret has no basis in historical fact and presupposes an astounding confusion between a King of France from the 17th century and a Russian or German dictator from the 20th century. If France in the 17th century was (very partially) subject to censorship by the King and Church, Dutch publishers took pleasure in printing anything and everything that could be perceived as contrary to the politics of Louis XIV, and it is from Holland that came (despite the vain efforts of the Royal Police) all the lampoons mocking (and thus revealing) the secret affairs of Louis XIV and of the royal family. On the lookout as they were for the secrets of the court of France, all the while being great admirers of the best French authors (particularly Corneille, Moliere and Racine whose every play they counterfeited), the Dutch and French exiled in Holland would have taken great pleasure in exposing Moliere and Corneille’s secret agreement if there had been any truth to it. Their silence is the best answer to the ravings of Louÿs and his disciples.