Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Alain-René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas de Santillane

.... I therefore went in search of Doctor Sangrado, and brought him to the house. He was a tall, meagre, pale man, who had kept the shears of Clotho employed during forty years at least. This learned physician had a very solemn appearance, weighed his discourse, and gave an emphasis to his expressions: his reasoning was geometrical, and his opinions extremely singular.

After having observed the symptoms of my master’s disease, he said to him with a very physical air: “The business here is to supply the defect of perspiration, which is obstructed: others, in my place, would doubtless prescribe saline draughts, diuretics, diaphoretics, and such medicines as abound with mercury and sulphur; but cathartics and sudorifics are pernicious drugs, and all the preparations of chymistry are only calculated to do mischief: for my own part I practice a method more simple, and more sure. Pray, what is your ordinary diet?” – “My usual food,” replied the canon, “is broth and juicy meat.” –“Broth and juicy meat!” cried the doctor, surprised, “truly, I do not wonder to find you sick: such delicious victuals are poisoned pleasures and snares, which luxury spreads for mankind in order to ruin them the more effectually. You must renounce all palateable food: the most salutary is that which is most insipid: for as the blood is insipid, it requires such victuals as partake the most of its own nature. And do you drink wine?” added he. “Yes,” said the licentiate, “wine diluted.” –“O! diluted as much as you please,” replied the physician, “what an irregularity is here! what a frightful regimen! you ought to have been dead long ago. How old are you, pray?” –“I am going in my sixty-ninth year,” replied the canon. “Right,” said the physician, “an early old age is always the fruit of intemperance. If you had drunk nothing else than pure water all your life, and had been satisfied with simple nourishment, such as boiled apples, for example, you would not now be tormented with the gout, and all your limbs would perform their functions with ease. I do not despair, however, of setting you to rights again, provided you be wholly resigned to my directions.”

The licentiate having promised to obey him in all things, Sangrado sent me for a surgeon, whom he named, and ordered him to take from my master six good porringers of blood, as the first effort, in order to supply the want of perspiration. Then he said to the surgeon: “Master Martin Omnez, return in three hours, and take as much more: and repeat the same evacuation to-morrow. It is a gross error to think that blood is necessary for the preservation of life; a patient cannot be blooded too much; for as he is obliged to perform no considerable motion or exercise, but just only to breathe, he has no more occasion for blood than a man who is asleep; life, in both, consisting in the pulse and respiration only.” The doctor having ordered frequent and copious evacuations of this kind, told us, that we must make the canon drink warm water incessantly; assuring us that water drunk in abundance, was the true specific in all distempers whatever. And when he went away he told Dame Jacinta and me, with an air of confidence, that he would answer for the patient’s life, provided we would treat him in the manner he had prescribed. The governante, who possibly thought otherwise of this method, protested that it should be followed with the utmost exactness. Accordingly we set about warming water with all dispatch; and as the physician had recommended to us, above all things, not to be too sparing of it, we made my master drink for the first dose two or three pints, at as many draughts. An hour after we repeated it, and returning to the charge, from time to time, overwhelmed his stomach with a deluge of water: the surgeon seconding us, on the other hand, by the quantity of blood which he drew from him, in less than two days the old canon was reduced to extremity.  (Book II Ch II)

Dame Jacinta and Gil Blas, not ill-pleased by the event, barely have time to bring a notary so that a will can be made out in their favour. As the poor old man expires, Doctor Sangrado returns,

and looked very foolishly, notwithstanding his long practice of dispatching patients. Nevertheless, far from imputing the canon’s death to his watery draughts and evacuations, he observed as he went out, with an air of indifference, that the patient had not lost blood enough, nor drank a sufficient quantity of warm water...

I have quoted this, one of the most arresting passages in Gil Blas, on the assumption that few English-speaking readers will have encountered it. (How Smollett must have relished translating this!) For though the name of Gil Blas is familiar to anyone who has studied the English novel (Scott, Dickens and so on being fervent readers of Le Sage), the book is now barely available, though it is still read in France. 

Things would be different, no doubt, if Gil Blas were always, or often, as fiercely vigorous as this. Doctor Sangrado, perhaps an invention of sheer fancy, is a satire so generalized that it works equally well as a critique of conventional and of alternative medicine; you might say as a critique of all the professions whatever, inasmuch as all of them presume that one can validly be in a position to advise others on how to live their lives and solve their problems, a presumption whose successes are rarely demonstrable and whose unrelieved failure, even, is so well bolstered by a conspiracy of discourse that it usually escapes notice.

[I might add, though, that I was caught up short by a sentence in Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (1988): “The Doctor would kill his patient in order to rid him of his disease.” This is implied to have been a familiar motif of the Commedia dell’ Arte, but I am unable to confirm it – on the contrary, the Dottore of the Commedia was a lawyer. Anyway, the death-dealing Doctor is a stock joke, e.g. in Molière’s L’Amour médecin  – I am so ignorant, I have no business writing this... There’s also Barrabas’s autobiography in The Jew of Malta:

            Being young, I studied physic, and began
            To practise first upon the Italian;
            There I enriched the priests with burials... (II.3)

This, however, is but one in a list of murderous professions. Later, in Scott’s The Abbot, we see the joke mutating gently into Dr Lundin’s ridiculous concern for his professional prestige and his “honorarium”, his respectful attitude towards chronically enfeebled potion-takers and his disgust at the rudely healthy who never employ his services. 

The seventeenth chapter of Richard Ford’s lively Gatherings from Spain (1846) is devoted to a discussion of the wretchedness of Spanish doctors, who are “dangerous like a rattlesnake”. Among the causes that Ford proposes are 1. an indifference to science resulting from Philip III’s law, motioned by universities led by ecclesiastics, “prohibiting the study of any new system of medicine, and requiring Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna”; 2. the low status of the calling, in a land where status and the pundonor are of such high account; 3. “the philosophy of the general indifference to life in Spain, which almost amounts to Oriental fatalism, in the number of executions and general resignation to bloodshed”.

But in 17th c. Protestant Europe things were not much better. Quinine, which was so effective in the treatment of malaria (then a disease that infested Europe), was vehemently condemned.  “At this time, the profession was still in the thrall of Galen’s dictum laid down in the 2nd century AD, which strongly promoted bleeding as a way to expel corrupt humours. Even when the efficacy of the Jesuits’ powder was demonstrated, the medical profession shunned it, using the excuse of its religious connections. A more likely reason for its rejection was that bleeding was more profitable. For instead of a short course of efficacious bark infusions, several expensive bleedings would have been administered, and since this was no cure the fevers would return, requiring further, costly treatment” (Toby and Will Musgrave, An Empire of Plants, 2000). ]

Whatever its literary provenance, Le Sage’s stock joke about doctors has a plain relevance to his book, in which health, like destiny, cannot be explained and is therefore portrayed as a matter of chance.

Gil Blas gains from its lack of ambition. Passing blithely from story to story, its common framework is the hero (or sometimes another person) being involved in some means of getting by. This might not necessarily mean a job; it might mean involvement in some scam or temporarily important affair. Most of the jobs that Gil Blas tries his hand at are singularly useless, by modern standards; they do not produce economic issue. For the most part they are in service. Jobs are easily found, and not long retained; usually, we find ourselves sharing those formative early days when a servant is forming impressions of his milieu. If you like a steadiness of moral vision, Gil Blas admirably supplies the steadiness, at the expense of the morality. 

The hero’s shallowness of character is important. In Book III Chapter I he begins work for a new master: “He was a man turned of fifty, seemed to be serious and reserved, though good-natured withal; so I conceived no bad opinion of him.” Since the master has no obvious place in society, however, scandal begins to circulate, and Gil Blas is infected by this immediately. He thinks that his master is a spy: “I saw him walking in the street with an air of assurance that at first confounded my penetration: but, far from being duped by those appearances, I distrusted them, having no favourable opinion of the man.” In fact, the corregidor’s visit reveals that the master is merely well-off and outstandingly lazy; his way of life is a philosophical proposition. Gil Blas swings with the tide again: “After this conversation, which the alguazil and I overheard at the closet-door, the corregidor took his leave of Don Bernard, who could not enough express his gratitude; while I, to second my master, and assist him in doing the honours of the house, overwhelmed the alguazil with civilities, making a thousand profound bows, though in the bottom of my soul, I harboured that disdain and aversion which every man of honour has for one of his occupation.” The bottom of his soul is only two inches beneath its surface, but the presentation is all the better for it.

By the time we reach Book III we might think that a pattern is emerging. Book III Chapter IV finds Gil Blas in service with a beau. “Well”, says a fellow servant pretty soon after, “don’t you begin to get rid of your rust?” Such remarks are irresistible, and soon Gil Blas confesses that  “though it (this way of life) was quite new to me as yet, I did not despair of being reconciled to it in time.” After Don Matthias has been killed in a duel (an affair of no great gravity), Gil Blas switches seamlessly, and even more entertainingly, into service with an actress, in the company of the delightful Laura. But at this point there is an unexpected check. Gil Blas reminds himself (what we have long forgotten) that he originally set out to be a tutor, and under the temporary influence of moral remorse he withdraws from this lively circle. (Fairly obviously, he can’t keep up the pace.) What follows in Book IV dispels any simple pattern. He finds himself in service to one Aurora, and after pleasingly mistaking her advances and making himself ridiculous, gets involved in a good-natured plot to entrap a rakish lover. But in the midst of this, we are treated to a highflown tragedy about mistaken purposes in Sicily (“The Baleful Marriage – A Novel”, as Smollett has it). Le Sage may have been one of those authors, like John Ashbery, who prefer to think that they write to no program.

We are bound to read these early novels from the perspective of later ones, and at first to characterize the “picaresque novel” by its emptinesses – for instance, the lack of signification that is signified by the word “episode”. This makes the book easy to put down (no-one now could read Gil Blas day after day). What makes it easy to take up again is, to us though not to contemporary readers, a more elusive matter. No doubt it’s true that much of this elusive attractiveness is what Le Sage and his readers would be surprised by; the insouciance that was always a component in the book itself is magnified by its distance from us, by the weight and spaciousness of the crumbling brown volume, its appallingly interesting engravings, Smollett’s meaty prose, and other reassuring reminders that the book is secure in an untroublesome category of our existence.

In Book IV Chapter IX Gil Blas, “having seen everything that was curious in Toledo” (an unexpected foreshortening) is on his travels again. He overtakes a stranger whom he recognizes as the man being sought by the party of soldiers he has just passed by at the inn, and in view of this pursuit and the imminent onset of a storm, they decide to take leave of the high road and to seek shelter with a “holy hermit”, who welcomes them. The storm breaks fearsomely; “The hermit fell on his knees before an image of St Pacomo, which was glued to the wall, and we followed his example.” Soon a frugal though wholesome meal is supplied, but Don Alphonso (the travelling companion) is too distracted to eat. The hermit observes: “I perceive that you are accustomed to better tables than mine, or rather, that sensuality has corrupted your natural taste. I have been in the world, as you are now: the most delicate viands, the most exquisite ragouts, were not too good for my palate: but since I have lived in solitude, I have retrieved the former purity of my taste, and at present can relish nothing but roots, fruits, milk; in a word, that which composed the nourishment of our first parents.” It’s a speech that appeals to us, despite the faint tincture of Dr Sangrado. Don Alphonso is persuaded to tell his story; then a fellow of the hermit returns to the grotto, and they confide that their holy appearance is a disguise; in fact they turn out to be two scoundrels who have already fleeced Gil Blas in an earlier chapter.  They too have now discovered that they are being pursued, and urge Gil Blas and Don Alphonso to join them: “You cannot do better than to join your fortune to ours; you shall want nothing: and we will baffle all the search of your enemies. We know almost every inch of Spain having travelled over it; and are acquainted with the woods, mountains, and every place proper for an asylum against the brutality of justice.” So the four hastily abandon the grotto, though it is now nightfall, “leaving as a prey to justice the two hermit’s robes, with the white and red beards, two pallets, a table, a rotten chest, two old straw-bottomed chairs, and the image of St. Pacomo.”

The transformation in our attitude to that image is of course very funny. At the same time Don Raphael, both as hermit and robber, focuses a sense of pastoral liberation, though we now recognize the malicious amusement in his unctuous remarks about diet. This sense of liberation persists all the while the four are together, though it won’t be long before Gil Blas and Don Alphonso will part amicably from the others (for once again, the pace is a bit too hot). As they hide in a pleasant glade, drinking wine and eating slices of roasted meat, Don Raphael gives us a splendidly colourful account of his adventures, which include a long captivity in Algiers. It makes a long chapter, and the next one begins: “When Don Raphael had ended his narration, which I thought very tedious, Don Alphonso was so polite as to say it had diverted him very much indeed.” Thus Gil Blas is able to take a small literary revenge for Don Raphael’s dominance (and for the loss of his purse); Le Sage knows that the story is far from tedious.

I am sorry to say that “the brutality of justice” eventually catches up with Don Raphael and Lamela, in the form of an Auto da Fe in which they are the principal luminescences. Gil Blas witnesses the ceremony with horror, with swooning, with self-congratulation on his own good sense in separating from them, and, in the space of one sentence, with oblivion: “but these afflicting images, which disturbed my imagination, dispersed insensibly...” (Book XII Chapter I).

Liberation and insouciance are natural themes of the picaresque novel, if you compare it with the claustrophobically taut plotting of later novels – the High Victorian and most of its successors. In these books, everything signifies. Human beings are in thrall to chains of event developing from their own characters, their family and acquaintance, their society. The novelist sees a mission in drawing out the logic that entraps them: El destino de un pueblo es como el destino de un hombre. Su carácter es su destino (J. Wassermann, quoted as the epigraph to Los Bravos (1954) by Jesús Fernández Santos).

In Gil Blas this business of destiny is less well understood. Destiny might exist (Gil Blas mentions it sanctimoniously on a number of occasions), but its operations are just as invisible to the reader as to the hero; the visible procession consists of chances, good and ill luck. Just deserts are rarely apparent. (Two typical instances: the tutor who is not allowed to punish the stupidity of Don Raphael’s noble schoolmate has the clever idea of whipping Don Raphael instead; and Gil Blas, tentatively producing the honest literary criticism that his employer the archbishop has urged on him, is of course instantly dismissed.)      

Prose fiction is always a mimesis of experience; at least, it always is when it’s read. The mimesis interposes, however, a contrast between experience and the literary monument that mirrors it. The picaresque novel, by comparison with the forms that spring from Scott and Balzac, omits the element of explanation. The book lives alongside the reader’s own progress through the days; it does not, so to speak, turn to confront it with annihilating intelligence. Both its hero and its reader live from hand to mouth. 

[“Camille Pissarro died in Paris on 13th November 1903 of blood poisoning caused by an abscess of the prostate: his homeopathic doctor had attempted to cure it without operation.” Perhaps one may conclude, with Dr Sangrado in mind, that any form of medicine is blighted by a doctrinaire spirit.]

[Gil Blas was published, in two volumes, in 1715.  A third volume appeared in 1724, and a fourth in 1735.] 


I read Smollett's translation; one of the first "old" books I ever acquired, though it took me many years to get round to reading it.

Scott was under the impression that Smollett lent only his name to the translation, but this is apparently an error, and it's now recognized as the definitive Gil Blas in English. It was published in 1748, nine months after Roderick Random.


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