Masks and mirrors: problems of representation in French renaissance literature

Leva, James Robert, Department of French Language and Literature, University of Virginia
McKinley, Mary, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

Renaissance writers often seem to place human existence in a ludic context, that
of the theatrum mundi. As they expose the folly of believing the illusions of the theatrum mundi, the writers also must confront the paradoxes into which they enter by attempting to intimate truth through the mise-en-abîme of literary representation.

Chapter One posits the theater as a paradigm for the dynamics of representation because the theater constantly exposes itself by emphasizing the provisional and arbitrary nature of its illusions. The inability of the creative illusions of art or language to attain the absolutes towards which they strive is examined through ancient and modern contexts.

Chapter Two compares .the poetic endeavors of Marguerite de Navarre and Pierre de Ronsard. Ronsard seeks to create a poetic persona that becomes substantial through his poetry. His poems figure the desire to be the divinely annointed descendent of Homer and Virgil. They enact his desire to transform himself, like Jupiter, as a means of working his will. Thus his poetry figures the desire for the capacity to satisfy desire.

Marguerite's poetry and theater give form to her yearning for incorporation with the Divine Totality. Prerequisite to that reunion is the annihilation of self and the stilling of its voice. Marguerite's poetic voice is a figuration of the desire for silence; it constantly points beyond its own utterances to the silence by which it is succeeded and absorbed. The Chansons spirituelles are examined in Chapter Two. Chapter Three contains readings of Marguerite's Théâtre profane and the poem "L'Umbre."

Rabelais mocks the desire for absolutes as a craving that can only be satisfied through delusion. Seekers of certainty, absolute knowledge or power are ridiculed. Rabelais emphasizes the process and growth of becoming rather than the vain attempt to arrest and contain the truth and vitality that informs existence.

The final chapter examines Montaigne's project of self-portrayal through a reading of "Des boyteux." The human desire for perfection, Montaigne seems to say, can only proceed through recognition of our incapacity to seize perfection. Desire mirrors our deformity as it fuels our quest .

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
French literature -- 16th century -- History and criticism, Mimesis in literature
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