The Logic of Idolatry in Seventeenth-Century French Literature

In mid-seventeenth-century France, Charlotte-Amélie de la Trémoille, the young member of one of the country’s most prominent Protestant families, is playing with some childhood friends, who are young Catholic girls. The girls give the princess some little images and tell her to pray in front of them, which she does for two weeks, finding the practice “pretty.” One day, while the princess is playing with her dolls, she goes to wash her favorite glass. Without warning, the glass suddenly shatters and cuts her. Thus, she tells her son in the Mémoires she writes for him as an adult, did God express his disapproval of her brief foray into idolatry.

            This preoccupation with idolatry has become, with the help of Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, mystifying, if not downright incomprehensible, to us today. It is precisely this strangeness that attracted me to the subject. If we can no longer understand the strong, visceral emotions that idolatry aroused, what else about the early modern period are we missing? And what can attention to the issues surrounding idolatry teach us about ourselves today?

            Ubiquitous during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, yet largely invisible to us today, idolatry could be described as the “dark matter” of the early modern. By this I mean that when we observe curious, even inexplicable behavior in early modern texts- why is Sévigné obsessed with her daughter? why is Phèdre so upset about her love for Hippolyte, who isn’t even her biological son? why does Descartes insist upon divine creation?- looking for the pull of this powerful concept often pays off. This might seem surprising if we consider idolatry as mainly concerned with the question of images. While that is certainly the case, in my book I argue that it is also, essentially, about the relationship between the Creator God and his creatures. The word “idolatry” appears when this relationship is perceived to be disordered, when the creature, whether through its beauty or its initiative, threatens to obscure its source. The early modern period saw a profound realignment of the relationship between the human and the divine, which was shifting from one of dependence to one of emulation, and this shift, experienced as deeply destabilizing, threatened to render the world illegible.

            In the hands of some of the best-known seventeenth-century French writers and thinkers, idolatry provided a language, and logic, that allowed them to explore a wide range of approaches to the problems posed by terrestrial (and linguistic!) beauty and by unprecedented human agency and authorship. For some, like La Fontaine and Molière, the very notion of idolatry, and the jealous divinity who condemned it, suggested that Christianity might be fundamentally misguided, or at least a highly problematic foundation for society and morality. For others, such as the marquise de Sévigné or Racine’s tragic heroine Phèdre, the threat of idolatry was darkly omnipresent, something to be avoided at all costs. For as horrifying as the possibility of idolatry was, the idea of a world untethered from its Creator, where idolatry would no longer be an issue, was even more terrifying.

            To a large extent, this is the world that many of us inhabit today, and, as we know, there are those who indeed find it terrifyingly rudderless. The iconoclastic destruction wrought by those who continue to view idolatry as a terrible sin has perhaps led to the fear that engaging with idolatry is an implicit endorsement or legitimization of such tactics; after one of my talks on the topic, a member of the audience informed me that speaking of the “logic” of idolatry was contradictory, a bit like speaking of the “logic of Scientology.” Yet as we continue to grapple with unprecedented human capabilities of creation and destruction as well as our difficulties in believing in what, like a virus or climate change, cannot be easily seen or imagined, a return to the surprisingly complex and nuanced uses of idolatry- and yes, its logic- in early modern France may well teach us something.

This guest post was written by Ellen McClure, Associate Professor of History and French, University of Illinois at Chicago.

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