Admiration at First Sight: The Act of Admiring in Seventeenth-Century French Literature

McConnell, Kelly, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lyons, John, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

Admiration has variously been discussed as a positive or negative passion for centuries, due in large part to its complex location somewhere between the individual and the social, the active and the contemplative, the neutral and the evaluative. From its Latin roots, the meaning of admiration has changed over time, losing its neutral association with positive or negative awe, and gaining a social, shared connotation of pleasurable desirability. In seventeenth-century France, the understanding of admiration’s often incongruous layers were exposed by some of the most well-known authors of the period. René Descartes’s Traité des Passions de l’âme privileges admiration as the first of the primary passions. Neutral and involuntary, admiration arises from surprise at something new and unexpected, without evaluation. Pierre Corneille incorporates this neutrality of admiration in his plays: greatness arises out of the ability to amaze, which can result from morally positive or negative acts. Blaise Pascal’s Pensées shows admiration occurring on two levels: wonder for the divine unknown and desire for earthly greatness that generates jealousy and envy. Man desires greater understanding of God’s creation, yet admiration for others and the desire to be admired consumes his daily activity. François de La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes considers admiration in a purely social context, depicting it as a passion that man’s amour-propre pushes him to seek from others. Admiration confers value upon the admired who cannot control his or her own admirable qualities. As the Princesse de Clèves learns in Lafayette’s novel by the same name, admiration at court is a dangerous, uncontrollable and unavoidable passion, capable of reshaping the desires of even the most virtuous.

This study considers admiration’s associations with God, the Court, and heroism, and its crucial place in seventeenth-century literature and philosophy. This period of undeniable categorization and systematization of human emotions and passions arises not only from a philosophical desire to control, but from a need to understand the physical inner workings of the body. Viewing the period through a “Cartesian gaze,” this study privileges admiration as a key term in discussing man’s understanding of his own relationship to the exterior world. For the modern reader of these early-modern texts, admiration’s multiplicity leads to several key questions: Who, if anyone, controls and determines admiration? What causes admiration and is it desirable? And most importantly, what does admiration “do” for the author, the reader, and the text? Beginning with Descartes and continuing throughout the early-modern period, admiration is invariably linked to notions of surprise, wonder, newness, contemplation, and knowledge. The authors considered in this study, however, incorporate these ideas to impressively disparate ends, showing the adaptability that makes admiration such a fascinating term in seventeenth-century France. 

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
admiration, seventeenth, Descartes, Pascal, Corneille, La Rochefoucauld, Lafayette, étonnement, surprise
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