Reading with Eyes and Ears
Comment on Roger Chartier's Culture écrite et société: l’ordre du livre (XIVe-XVIII) (Paris : Editions Albin Michel, 1996)
Before starting with my comment, I would like to mention that I read the French version of Chartier’s Culture écrite et société: l’ordre du livre (XIVe-XVIII) not because I like that language but because I could not find its English translation. For this reason, my pages and paraphrases will be different from the ones some of the classmates have in their English version.
This chapter I want to comment - De la fête de cour au public citadin - is almost exclusively about a feast that took place at Versailles in the royal palace and Molière’s “George Dandin” that was performed on that occasion.
The “reading public” in this chapter is Louis XIV and hundreds of his guests, most of whom were foreign ambassadors and knights. They constituted a special reading public because their way of reading was different from the one we know. They actually read not from the book but from the stage, not with their eyes only but with both their eyes and ears. Also, they read the same text simultaneously.
I find this way of reading comic or tragic plays very interesting and more instructive than reading from the book. The actors, who rehearsed their roles for weeks and months in the presence of and under the guidance of Molière, made the text and the story livelier. This means that in less than two hours the spectators of Molière’s “Cléopatre” could have a more and better detailed description of Cleopatra than those who isolated themselves with the same book to decipher it.
The title suggests that the chapter contains something about urban audience, but in reality it limits itself to the “théâtre urbain” (p. 158, 15th line) and no further detail is given, which is very unfortunate. It would have been more interesting to know how popular Moliere’s plays (or plays in general) were at that time, how often they were performed and how accessible theatres were to the urban reading public.
Instead, pages are dedicated to the study of the personality of Dandin (the play’s main character), to his mistakes, to the lessons he drew from his marriage with a gentleman (gentilhomme)’s daughter and other details that would be relevant for a literary analysis of “George Dandin”.
To come to the present time, I would like to mention a growing phenomenon of “audio-visual reading”, which is gaining ground. This has the advantage of saving time for the reader and the disadvantage that there is no direct contact between the reader and the text. The reader does not control his reading and cannot determine at which speed he reads and cannot stop to check up a word in a dictionary. I have to admit that if I were asked to choose between the “oeuvre complète” of Molière in DVD or in print, I would choose the former without any hesitation.