by Mara Naselli
“However insipid and perhaps superfluous details so well known may appear,” writes Duc de Saint Simon of
his recollections of court life at Versailles, “lessons will be found therein for kings who may wish to make themselves respected, and who may wish to respect themselves.” Saint-Simon claims his formal purpose is to give a robust critical account of the Sun King’s court—indeed he is unsparing in his judgment of the king’s vanity—yet his attention in the memoirs, on a paragraph-to-paragraph level, is fixed on the individual characters at court. His memoirs are more like a collection of portraits, one after another, with thin transitions, and scant overarching narrative. Most interesting, each portrait is unequivocally embodied. Saint Simon enacts for us the dance of court life: the sitting, the standing, the bowing, the washing, the dressing, the kissing, the confiding, the eating, the removing of hats, the donning of hats, the touching of hats, the screaming, the moaning, the kneeling, the whispering, the wringing of hands. Open to a random page in the memoirs: you will find living, breathing, thriving, ailing, moving bodies.
Under the Sun King, everything was seen. The most intimate activities had a public dimension. The design of Versailles itself was intended to surround Louis XIV with his court, to keep them close under his supervision and convey a singular magnificence and power. Versailles was designed as a symbolic and practical instrument to unify a fragmented state. Aristocrats were persuaded to leave their landholding estates to attend court. Courtiers were on display, many struggling to finance and maintain the right fashion and entertainments so as to earn a glance from the monarch. To be away from Versailles risked a rebuke from the king (“I do not know him”) that could have lasting consequences.
The gardens at Versailles were also designed to convey a sense of wealth and total control. The ornate, rigid geometry suggested a kind of god-like omniscience over the vast grounds that extended as far as the eye could see. Landscape architect Ian Thompson has noted that one of the most memorable fountains at Versailles also issued a warning. It depicts Enceladus, a mythical giant who attempted to revolt against Zeus. Zeus punished Enceladus for his rebellion by striking him with a bolt of lightening. The fountain featured Enceladus drowning, with a jet of water from the giants throat thrust eight meters into the air—a clear warning to anyone who might suspect they might tamper with Louis's power.
The cumulative effect of the Sun King’s absolutism was a masterly manipulation of the aristocracy—an all-seeing public gaze internalized by each attendant at court. The constancy of being seen, even in the king’s absence, governed all manner of life. Brides received guests at the marriage bed. High-ranking courtiers handed the king a napkin for his closet. Another rubbed him with rose water. One never turned one’s back on the king’s painted portrait. One removed one’s hat at the king’s table, regardless of whether the king was there or not. Certain business could be conducted at the king’s lever, other business, in the staircase used by the king when he went shooting or for a walk, other business at his coucher. Public and private merged in the elaborate choreography of French court life. Saint-Simon pays great attention to the bodies at court because it is through bodies that the court functioned and displayed its power and influence.
One long passage in Saint Simon’s memoir describes several dukes’ resistance to the Duc de Luxembourg’s intention to elevate his peerage and thus his rank within the court. Luxembourg’s intentions could be subverted, or at least delayed, if Duc de Saint-Simon could produce certain letters of state, which he had in a chest in his mother’s house. Saint-Simon and M de Richelieu drove there in the dead of night, not waiting for Mme Saint-Simon, who was only half awake, to give him permission. Even this strategy was almost undone by what we would consider the most private events: “The moment [Richelieu] arrived at our house he asked in a great hurry to go to my closet, where he left an action of such colossal proportions that the bowl could scarcely contain it; and that was when my mother had the chance to think again.”
When the king commanded a military demonstration during peacetime at Compiègne, the troops went broke buying themselves grand uniforms suitable for the occasion. The king wanted to show all of Europe that his military might remained strong after the Nine Year’s War. But there was also a more personal objective, Saint-Simon writes: “to give himself and even more Mme de Maintenon the pleasure of a splendid display of arms.” It was a massive undertaking. Wooden houses were built for the occasion, tents erected, hot and cold beverages served, along with the choicest liquors, wines, and costly and exotic viands. Louis XIV let it be known that he would be pleased with the company of an extremely large court, and so the ladies followed, using “every imaginable trick to cram themselves into the royal carriages.” Several returned pregnant. Where the king went, the court followed.
Courtly audiences at the palace also invited herd-like behavior. At the court of the Duchess de Bourgogne, an ambitious princess insisted on a well-positioned stool. The height of the stool on which a lady sits, whether she sits to the right or the left of the duchess, to the front or the rear of the audience, and so on—all these details of how one occupied the space conveyed rank and facor. One day, the highest stool, on the right of the Duchess de Bourgogne, was already taken by the Duchess de Rohan: “A moment later . . . Princesse d’Harcourt crept up behind her and told her to move across to the left side. Much amazed, the Duchess de Rohan replied that she was perfectly comfortable where she was. Thereupon the princess, a tall, powerful woman, without more ado placed her two arms at the duchess’s waist, twisted her round by force, and sat herself down in her place.”
Horses sort out rank in the herd by determining who will move and who will be moved. They bump and prod with their shoulders, noses, or hindquarters, or they flick their tails or pin their ears to signal their intentions. But what is so distinctive about Saint-Simon’s observations is that we see both the animalness of the embodied choreography at court, as well as its humanness. Princess d’Harcourt’s incident was communicated through a labyrinthine network of courtiers, eventually reaching the king. She and others attached to her were punished with exclusion. Throughout the memoirs Saint-Simon recalls many at court who, justly or unjustly, suffered the kind of isolation many of us might remember experiencing in the eighth grade lunch room.
Erich Auerbach discusses a moving, intimate scene in which Saint-Simon goes to see the ailing Duc d’Orléans, whom he finds in his basement wardrobe, sitting on his chaise percée: “He was on his close-stool among his valets and two or three of his principle officers,” writes Saint-Simon. “He terrified me. I saw a man with his head down, a purplish red, with a vacant look, who did not even see me approach. His attendants told him. He turned his head toward me slowly, almost without raising it, and asked me thickly what brought me. I told him.” Auerbach notes the Duc d’Orléans is no longer an office, but a man. “In his level of style Saint-Simon is a precurser of modern and ultramodern forms of conceiving and representing life,” writes Auerbach. “He takes human beings in the midst of their everyday environment, with their background, their multifarious relations, their possessions, every particle of their bodies, their gestures, every nuance of their speech, their hopes, and their fears.” Saint-Simon is more than a documentarian, more than a historian. He gives us something of the spirit of these characters, so that they appear to live and breathe again, rustling their garments as they circle about in their gilded cage.
At the king’s extravagant military display at Compiègne, the court watched the great army and their maneuvers of attack and defense and a vast crowd of spectators on foot and on horseback kept a respectful distance. Saint-Simon, however, notices a subtler encounter:
Mme de Maintenon sat there in her sedan-chair, facing the plain and the troops, with the three glass windows closed. On the left-hand shaft sat Mme la Duchess de Bourgogne; behind her, forming a semi-circle, stood . . . the other ladies, and behind them the men. By the right-hand window of the chair was the King, standing, with a semi-circle of the highest-ranking gentlemen behind him. His hat was off most of the time, and every now and then he bent to speak to Mme de Maintenon through the glass, explaining what was going on and the reasons for each manœuvre. Whenever he did so she was sufficiently polite to lower the window four or five inches, never so far as halfway, for I noticed particularly, and I must admit to having been far more taken up by this scene than by the movements of the troops. Occasionally she opened the window first to ask the King some question, but most often it was he who first leaned down to give her information, not waiting for her to address him; But sometimes when she paid no attention he rapped on the glass to make her open. He did not speak to anyone else, save to give orders, a few words and very seldom, and he sometimes answered Mme la Duchess de Bourgogne, who tried hard to persuade him to speak to her. Mme de Maintenon pointed things out to her and communicated in sign language from time to time through the front window, but did not open that, and the young princess screamed back a few words in reply. I closely scrutinized the faces of the onlookers. They all had the same expression of ill-concealed apprehension and shamed astonishment, and those in the semi-circles behind her chair gazed at her with far more attention than at the army, and all were acutely embarrassed. The King often laid his hat on the roof of the chair whilst he bent to talk, and the continual stooping must have made his back ache considerably. The time was five in the afternoon, and the weather was as fine as heart could desire.
Nothing seems to escape Duc de Saint-Simon’s attention: the glass, the indifference of Mme de Maintenon, the screaming duchesse, the stooping king, the astonishment of the court, even the time of day and the clement weather. With his naturalness of expression, its unvarnished eyewitness detail, how can we not feel as though we have penetrated beneath the brocade artifice of court life and privacy into something more intimate, human, and sensitive? Saint-Simon elsewhere records the King’s disregard for Mme de Maintenon’s person, throwing open windows while she profusely sweats in a fever. We can understand her distance. Have we not also, at times in our life, rapped on the window, wanting to be heard?