Sunday, 6 November 2016

Paradis de Moncrif

Born in Paris in 1687, Paradis de Moncrif, author of Les Chats, was ten years older that Voltaire, who was a familiar correspondent. His career represents the archetypal “man of letters” of the earlier 18th century.  Lacking any independent fortune  – d'Alembert characterised his family as "poor but respectable" -  he was wholly dependent on aristocratic good will.  His most important patron was the comte d’Argenson  who employed him as secretary and later secured him a valuable sinecure as inspecteur des postes, which brought in an annual income of 6,000 livres. Added to this was an apartment in the upper floors of the Tuileries palace.  Powerful sponsors allow him to acquire literary respectability: he figured on the list of royal censors and in 1733 was admitted to the Académie française.   Most crucial of all in the 1740s he secured the envied position of “reader” to the Queen, allowing him to become something of a fixture in Court society; he was nicknamed “le fauteuil” so much was he an indispensible part of the furniture.  By all accounts Moncrif managing to “play the dévot” in the queen’s circle whilst still keeping up relations with d'Argenson and madame de Pompadour.  

Pastel portrait by Quentin La Tour , 1733, sold at Sotheby's in 2007

Moncrif had  a reputation as a smooth and ingratiating character, much in demand in society gatherings. He was, it was said, a cat with velvet paws.  He could turn his hand to all sorts of witty versification, musical entertainments and the amateur theatricals which were so much in vogue, particularly in the earlier part of the century.  He earned himself a particular reputation as a writer of songs.  He also tried his hand at composing theatricals –  his first play earned a certain succès de scandale when it was banned for impiety though his subsequent efforts were less well regarded.  He did better as a librettist and composer of  musical entertainments:  his output was considerable, his most noteworthy production being the.libretto for the ballet Zelindor King of the Sylphes.  As an academician he turned out  respectable and well-written compositions.  At the age of fifty, he produced a little treatise on the Art of Pleasing, which was generally dismissed, but was well-regarded by Voltaire who  compared it to the work of Lord Chesterfield.  Voltaire - who addressed him ingratiatingly as "mon cher Sylphe" - was condescending but no doubt found Moncrif a useful contact and envied his position at Court as a man who had the Queen on his side ("la reine pour [lui]") and the ear of the King.

Portrait by Carmontelle, c.1760
Alway sensitive to insult, Moncrif suffered greatly from the barbs of criticism and satire.  Les Chats generated a torrent of derisive witticisms which tormented him for much of his career – he was finally driven to repudiate it and suppressed it altogether from the collected edition of his works.  His election to the Academy, gained through influence, was much resented. One wag let loose a live cat during his reception speech, to an appreciative chorus of meows from the audience. The speech was vindictive parodied, and Moncrif was commonly invited to "meow from the rooftops".  It is revealing of contemporary mores that  Moncrif actual delivered a beating to one of his detractors, the poet Pierre-Charles Roy - but the only result was to be taunted by Roy to retract his claws.  In the early 1750s the story circulated that Moncrif had petitioned d’Argenson for Voltaire's place as royal historiographer –"Surely you mean historiogriffe?" came the Minister's delicious reply.

In personality, Moncrif was by all accounts an aimable bon viveur with a taste for good food and elegant clothing; he had a fondness for actresses and women of easy virtue “which continued remarkably into old age”.  However, he had his good points.  Despite his obsequiousness at Court, he was much commended for his loyalty to d'Argenson after his disgrace. He also gave a good end;  at the grand age of eighty-three, the old Epicurean was universally admired for his virtuoso display of tranquil courage in the face of death.


Family and early career

His family, honest although not well off, brought him up with care in the hope that he might win one of those positions where fortune is the reward for hard work.  The young Moncrif had altogether other inclinations:  instead of serious study, he preferred the entertaining arts - poetry, dance and music.... It was his talent in these which served him as an introduction to high society, so that he often found himself in the company of the highborn youth of the kingdom.  He made himself loved and sought after for his fine wit and obliging character.....He was a poet, musician, an actor full of enthusiasm, intelligence and resourcefulness.  He was the life and soul of  the amateur entertainments with which high society gatherings dissipated their boredom..
d'Alembert,  "Éloge de Moncrif"

Moncrif's mother was the widow of a procureur called Paradis who, having bought the office of secretaire du Roi, defaulted on his debts and was forced to take  refuge the Temple.  He died, leaving his wife and two children in poverty.  Fortunately Madame Paradis was a woman of wit  who knew how to provide for her two sons.  Through the protection of my brother one became a subaltern and later a minor commander.  The elder was the principal object of their mother's affections; she made huge efforts  to have him dress well so that he could be introduced into society.  She sent him to the theatres, to the places set apart for distinguished people, so that he could make useful connections
 Marquis d’Argenson, "M. de Moncrif de l’Académie française"
 Born in Paris in 1687, he lost at an early age his father, who was a procureur called Paradis.  His mother, a woman of wit, who was English in origin, had him take the name of her ancester ("Montcrief") and took great trouble to launch him in the world:  she succeeded. 
Notice on Moncrif, Éphémérides universelles  vol. 11 (1835)

Moncrif and his patrons

With an agreeable appearance, fine wit, a gentle and even-tempered personality, Moncrif was a poet, musician and act;  he became the life and soul of fashionable entertainments;  he wrote parodies, pageants for the grand prior d'Orleans and the comte de Maurepas.  He pleased the comte de Clermont, and this prince abbe made him secretary of his benefices, abandoning them almost entirely to his protege.  Having quarrelled with this eccleistic, Moncrif found consolation for his disgrace with the title of reader of Marie Leckzinsa:  he had his entrance to the king, a seat in the academy (1733); he owed to the comte d'Argenson the post of secretery general in the posts  And for all that what did Moncrif do?
Éphémérides universelles vol. 11

My brother made him his private friend and secretary, upon the most genteel footing;  Some years afterwards he attached himself to the comte de Clermont, Prince of the Blood, and he had the flattering title of secretary to his commanderies;  he had even a list of vacant benefices depending upon this prince abbé;  but he proposed no subject but with the approbation of certain women of the opera. ...

The reason that Montcrif was not generally liked in society, was that he had to climb several ladders, from the well-to-do bourgeoisie, to the gens de condition, and finally to great seigneurs and princes.  He was forced to neglect  his obligations to his first friends in order to please those of higher rank, which was considered a great insult.
Marquis d’Argenson, op.cit. 

[Moncrif] was a petty tax inspector in Tours when M. d 'Argenson was intendant.  The pretty songs he composed made him noticed by d'Argenson, who brought him to Paris and gave him a position.  From that time on, Moncrif has always been attached to him...He is also secretary general of the French postal service, a position that brings him in 6,000 livres a year and that M. d'Argenson gave to him as a present.
c.1750  MS of police inspector Joseph d'Hémery, c.1750 cited Darnton, Great Cat Massacre, p.149.

  Moncrif owed everything to the comte d'Argenson, who saw him through all the stops of an ideal literary career: three secretaryships, a cut in the revenue of the Journal des Savants, a seat in the  Académie française, an apartment in the Tuileries, and a position in the postal service worth 6,000 livre a year.  When Moncrif uncovered some satires against the King and Mme de Pompadour, emanating from the anti-d'Argenson, pro-Maurepas faction of the court, he promptly denounced their authors - and rightly so: not only should a writer never bite the hand that fed him, he should also smite all hands in the enemy campDarnton, paraphrasing d'Hémery, p.162-3:

When [the comte d'Argenson] was exiled (1757) Moncrif expressed his great regret and sought permission to follow him to his retreat.  He was allowed to pass six weeks with him. Throughout  the years, Moncrif always returned to give proof of his attachment and gratitude.
Éphémérides universelles

His personality

 A man of pleasure in Paris, he showed himself a devot at court;  he composed Essays on the Necessity and Means of Pleasing, but in this respect...his example was more instructive than his lessons.
Éphémérides universelles

Moncrif excepting his talent for writing tender and gallant songs, was a man of a very ordinary cast, but supple and courtier-like, so that he obtained himself a sort of reputation at court, or rather in the late Queen's parties.   He there played the man of great devotion, but at Paris he was a man of pleasure, and retained his passion for good eating and for the ladies to an extreme old age. Not long since, after the Opera, he presented himself among the Areopagus of the damsels belonging to it, saying, If any one of these ladies be inclined to sup with a very brisk old man she will have eighty-five steps to ascend; a good supper to eat,and ten louis to carry away.   The apartment which he occupied at the Tuilleries, was indeed up at a great height; report says that he acquitted himself extremely well at these parties.
Grimm, Obituary notice (1770)

Moncrif didn't content himself with feeding, so to speak, with his Cantique spirituels the tender piety of the queen; to complete his court to this religious princess, he acted as her secret intermediary  in pious correspondences; among others with the converted comedienne mademoiselle Gauthier....
d'Alembert, op. cit. note 3.quoting an article by the journalist La Place, 1781

The office of historiographer is nothing but an empty title;  I wanted to make it a reality by working on the history of the War of 1741; but, in spite of my labours, Moncrif had admittance to his Majesty, and I had not.
Letter of Voltaire  to the duc de Richelieu, August 1750
His person is better groomed and better powdered than ever. 
Letter to Madame du Deffand (14 February 1762)

His literary reputation

He gave to the Théâtre français a comedy entitled the Oracle of Delphi which was received with great applause; but the play was taken off after the fourth show due to some humourous comments on pagan religion into which certain fanatics read in scandalous meanings.  The suppression of Moncrif's comedy was a success for him....but his ensuring comedies excited a cold response from the public.  He had greater success with his musical pieces, notably Zélindor, one of the greatest pieces in the annals of the Opéra....
Those pieces which have most made his reputation are his romances, such as Alix et AlexisThey are sung, re-read even today, and there are verses which it gives pleasure to repeat by heart.
d'Alembert, op.cit.

If Moncrif had never written anything but his songs and ballads, he would have been the first writer, in his way, and that is always something.  But he wrote various other works, which have diminished his reputation.  We have, from his pen, several acts of French Operas, written in that vapid style of gallantry which is not less insipid and heavy than psalmodizing music mixed with little lively airs. He wrote an Essay upon the Means of Pleasing which is a poor performance, and of which the wits said  — that it had not the means.
Grimm, op.cit.

You cannot believe how much credit the Academy has lost in the last few years.  We will not be pardoned for Sallier and Moncrif.
Letter of the abbé d'Olivet, 12 December 1735

Les Chats 

A society pleasantry motivated him to compose a History of cats, in the form of letters addressed to a woman of the Court.  These letters were, as he himself admitted, "frivolous in a serious way" ("gravement frivole"); he lavished on them a pedantic erudition, which was intended to in a spirit of self-mockery, but for which he was  unjustly reproached.  He combined this erudition with a light-hearted tone that was considered cold and inappropriate.  Criticisms, sarcasms, even insults, rained down on him from all sides;  rhymes now forgotten, pamphlets no longer read, were devoured hungrily and received with a sort of passion.  The impression they made was so vivid and profound that when he was received into the Académie française....the inept multitude were easily persuaded that this bagatelle was his only entitlement...[A torrent of epigrams was unleashed against both Moncrif and the Academy itself]  

Moncrif submitted with good grace to the severe sentence of the public.  He carried it out himself, withdrawing the History of cats from his collected works.  He did better still and in the preface to this collection, he had the courage to act as censor to his own work.  "In a work that is bad in itself, wit only adds to the wrong.  Why create such a volume?  Why accumulate oddities, when their uselessness is evident and their interest diminishes in the measure that they multiply?"  
d'Alembert,  op. cit.

Les chats, in octavo; a work that has unjustly brought him ridicule.  His mistake was to have it published  as a book, when it was only a society pleasantry.
 Marquis d’Argenson, op.cit.

In his youth, he composed a History of the Cats which I never saw; a work, which pretended to be very facetious, but was very insipid, and which drew upon him many sarcasms and epigrams.  Roi, the poet, having made a very severe one, Moncrif laid in wait for him as he came out of the Palais-Royal, and caned him heartily; but Roi, who was accustomed to such things, being not less supple than malignant, turned his head to Moncrif, and holding out his back to the stick, said quietly, Play gently, pussy, play gently. ["Patte de velours, Minon, patte de velours"]
Grimm, op.cit.

Moncrif was received into the Académie française under the auspices of M. le comte de Clermont, whilst he was still living with this prince.  There was no lack of satires against him.  The villainous abbé  Desfontaine had him well and truly sewn up.  Roy, the satirical poet, launched a scornful piece of verse against him.  Moncrif had his vengeance;  meeting Roy one evening after supper, he recognised him by the light of his torch and administered several blows of the cane across his shoulders as well as kicking him in the stomach.  Roy said to him as he received them, De grâce, Monsieur des Chats, faites patte de velours.
Such pleasantries against Moncrif were very fashionable.  One cites among others the comte d'Argenson, the Minister of War, to whom Moncrif  appealed to  succeed Voltaire as historiographer.  You mean historiogriffe replied the minister.
d'Argenson, op.cit.

Some satires against Moncrif

1. L'Isle de la folie, comedy produced by the Théâtre italien at the end of 1727.  In one scene Gulliver meets a musician who boasts of writing a "magnificent Cantata to the honour and glory of Cats....", the lyrics of which come directly from Moncrif.

 2. Le Miaou ou très docte et très sublime harangue miaulée par le seigneur Raminagrobis le 29 décembre 1733, jour de sa réception à l’Académie française à la place de M.... , "A Chatou, chez Monet, Au chat qui ecrit 1734" 
Moncrif's reception speech as delivered by a cat. 
Reproduced in Le chat: une anthologie, ed. Irène Frain (2016)

Final illness and death
[The journalist La Place records that he received a request for diverting books from Moncrif and, fearing that  something was wrong with his friend, climbed with lightning speed up to the old man's apartment.  Moncrif had discovered a black mark on his leg which he knew to presage his death.  He  confided his position with great sang froid]:
The philosophy to which I owe my happiness and tranquility  since youth, has been founded on this principle:  if we suffer evil, whether physical or moral, we should employ every means possible - selling the very shirt off our backs if necessary - to secure deliverance.  But where there is no remedy it merely adds to the suffering to fight destiny or bewail one's fate in a cowardly manner. Since my  my fate is sealed, help me to pass the little time I have left with as few pains and worries as possible.
[Moncrif called the curé to comply with his religious duties.  In the ten days left to him, there were gaming tables to nine, followed by fine suppers.  He played his favourite card games, without any sign of pain or impatience]  Our loveable Philosopher sustained, without discernable  effort, the role that he had imposed on himself.
Pierre Antoine de La Place,"Particularités singulières concernant la mort de Moncrif",
Pieces intéressantes et peu connues, pour servir a l'histoire et a la littérature vol. 8 (1790)

As he was over eighty-two years old, he had no doubt that he was nearing his end; but he faced death like a true philosopher.  He discussed his last moments with great presence of mind and without distress; he made the arrangements for his own funeral.  Having fulfilled his duties, he wished to fill the rest of his life with pleasures.  He had always received society; habitually  surrounded by  girls and actresses, he continued to feast his eyes on  the spectacle of their charms.  Since he could no longer go to the Opera, as was his wont, he himself hosted music, concerts and dancing;  in short, he died as he had lived, like the poet Anacreon.
Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets vol.3 p.231 November 1770

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