A Sign of Quality: Bouhours and the Polite Circle

Richard Scholar

in The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe

Published in print September 2005 | ISBN: 9780199274406
Published online September 2008 | e-ISBN: 9780191706448 | DOI:
 A Sign of Quality: Bouhours and the Polite Circle

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This chapter examines uses of the je-ne-sais-quoi in polite literature, particularly Bouhours and his contemporary the Chevalier de Méré, to refer to an imperceptible sign of social quality and distinction. It argues that the ruling class under Louis XIV in the third quarter of the 17th-century comes to cultivate ever subtler signs of cultural quality in order to distinguish itself from those it wishes to exclude, and that the je-ne-sais-quoi encapsulates this élitist process. The polite circle makes and distributes the je-ne-sais-quoi as an inherent quality among its members and their works. The term settles in late 17th-century culture, neither as a force of nature nor as a stroke of passion, but as a collective fabrication. It lends itself, as a result, to ridicule and satire in Congreve, Fielding, and other English authors of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as well as their French contemporaries.

Keywords: polite literature; social discourse; distinction; sedimentation; élitism; Bouhours; Méré; English Restoration comedy; Congreve; Fielding

Chapter.  17558 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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