Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Diderot, Bouret and his dog

Detail from Greuze's L'Enfant gâté (Louvre)

The story of Bouret and his dog has been made famous by Diderot in Rameau' s Nephew:

Rameau's nephew ("Lui") defends his reprehensible life as a social parasite on the grounds of moral determinism and cites Bouret 's innate natural ability in the art of flattery, a skill which has served him well:  "Only God and a few rare geniuses can have careers that keep stretching out before them as they advance".  His incident concerning the dog is one of three, ostensibly well-known,  examples of Bouret's  ingenuity, the others being the "Book of Felicity" and "torches lighting the way to Versailles". The first of these references is clearly to Bouret's famous book in the pavillon du roi,  described in the Correspondance littéraire for March 1764.  Bouret is recorded in 1759 as having stationed torchbearers at intervals along the King's progress from Versailles to La Croix-Fontaine.

According to Rameau's nephew, the  Keeper of the Seals took a fancy to Bouret's little pet dog and Bouret decided to make him a present of it.  He was obliged to go extraordinary lengths  since he had to persuade the animal to accept the minister as his new master. The creature, who was extremely attached to Bouret, was frightened by the minister's bizarre clothing.  Moreover Bouret was under time pressure, for he has only a week to achieve the feat. He had a mask made to disguise himself as the Keeper of the Seals, borrowed the man's wig and voluminous robe, then petted the dog and enticed it with titbits to eat;  reverting to his own identity, he then gave  the animal a beating.  By repeating the exercise from morning to night, the dog was soon persuaded to prefer the minister. Rameau's nephew professes  admiration for this remorseless attention to detail - "Having a mask made to look like him! It's the mask I find so staggering". Genius of this sort is born, not made:  "Who ever gave Bouret any lessons?  No-one. It's nature that forms these rare men.  Do you think the dog and the mask is written down anywhere?" (2014 English edition, p.52-55) 

Besides its inherent absurdity, the anecdote no doubt appealed to Diderot for its paradox: his interlocutor professes determinism  but, if a dog can be conditioned out of its natural behaviour, surely a man can be educated out of his degrading moral inclinations?

Jean-Baptiste de Machault d'Arnouville [Wikimedia]
Machault was Garde des Sceaux de France ,1750-57

Like the other examples of Bouret's sycophancy, the tale about the dog was in general circulation, albeit not in quite the same form.  The earliest  known version is from Pidansat de Mairobert's L'Espion Anglais for 2nd January 1774.  

M. de Machault had lost a greyhound bitch that he loved very much;  Sr Bouret sought out one that looked exactly alike; he found it and took it home;  he had a mannequin made and dressed in a fur trimmed robe like the one the controller always wore as Keeper of the Seals.  He trained the dog to show affection to this effigy, and to eat only after it had demonstrated gratitude towards it. took it with him and as soon as the animal saw M. de Machault, he ran to the minister and jumped up at him, so that the latter believed it was his own. One can see how a man capable of such meticulous and inventive persistence could succeed so well with the great!
L'Espion Anglais vol. 1, p.249 note.

This text was reprinted in various other journals during the Empire and Restoration.   A version much closer to  Diderot's  appeared in a letter published in Le Miroir  in June 1821.  The anonymous - and apparently elderly - author  claimed to have known both Bouret and Diderot personally.  Sadly, the letter is unlikely to be authentic;  it  far too closely reproduces Diderot's text, which was to be published in French for the first time (in back-translation from Goethe's German) later in 1821 (See Reading below). 

What was Diderot's relationship with Bouret?  In general, he had little regard for rich financiers, but there is not much direct evidence of his dealings with Bouret.  According to the  modern editor of the Neveu de Rameau, Marian Hobson,  Diderot "owed him favours" - but for Diderot, of all people, this was not necessarily a commendation.... 


Denis Diderot,  'Rameau's Nephew' – 'Le Neveu de Rameau': A Multi-Media Bilingual Edition, ed. Marian Hobson (2014) Open Editions
p.201, note 97: Etienne Michel Bouret (1709–77), the son of a laquais, he was a tax farmer from 1741, and for much of his life immensely rich, lending money to the king, famous in the popular press for his talent for flattery. Diderot owed him favours. See Marian Hobson ed. Seconde Satyre: le Neveu de Rameau (Geneva: Droz, 2013), p,202-04. [I don't access to this reference.]


Letter to Le Miroir for 19th June 1821: 

Bouret's little dog and the Controller-General of Finance.

You are perhaps too young to remember the Farmer-General Bouret. He was one of my best friends. I was one of the first to taste in his company the vol-au-vent à la financière invented by his chef, which has since acquired a European reputation. [This seems doubtful: the invention of the vol-au-vent à la financière is usually credited to the great Marie-Antoine Carême, in the early 19th century]

Bouret did not have as much wit as the majority of those who dined with him; but he possessed all that was required of him - a great fortune and a good table. One of his habitual dining companions was Diderot, author of a fine study on Seneca, who schooled him with a maxim of the Latin moralist on the functions of the stomach: Venter bene moratus magna est libertatis causa. He offered variant translations: "True liberty requires a stomach that wants for nothing"; "For good health one must keep one's stomach free"; or "one has enough liberty if one's stomach is full". This last is the lesson that is most followed. Bouret certainly was a Ventru [ that is to say an opportunistic diner].

It is certain that no-one know better than he did how to win over ministers; how, by dint of flattery , little attentions, baseness on occasions, to buy their favour and keep in their good books. He understood that everything can be obtained by intrigue, that favours rain down on mediocre men and toadies, and that around those in power there is nothing but deception, corruption, pillage and tartufferie. You have not seen such things, M. le Miroir; I am talking about the past. Bouret was a genius in his field. He had proved that flattery was subject to perfectibility and rolled back the boundaries of the art....it was a thing that was beautiful to see; a ideal that honoured the human spirit. Bouret had a little dog that very much pleased Monseigneur the Controller-General of Finance. He himself was very attached to this pretty animal, which gave him love in return. But for a dedicated courtier like Bouret, neither friends nor pet dogs counted for anything. The sacrifice of Favori was decided upon. Favori did not at all like Monseigneur, whose ugly features and rough manners frightened him. However he was promised to the hôtel des finances and expected any day. Anyone other than Bouret might have failed to bring it off and would perhaps have lost favour; but a spirit of that calibre has resources beyond those of vulgar people. Listen to what he did, and admire it! He had a mask made so that he resembled the Controller-General; he borrowed a braided costume from a valet-de-chambre. He covered his face with the mask, put on the outfit, then he called Favori to him, caressed him and gave him cake and sugar. Then suddenly he changed his clothes; it was no longer Monseigneur, it was Bouret who called his dog, and gave it a beating. After two or three days of continual repetition of this exercise, Favori learned to flee from Bouret the Farmer-General and run to Bouret the Controller-General. The mask! the mask! Monsieur le Miroir! Many men would have given a finger to have discovered the mask! In my view, this illustrates so well the behaviour of both men and dogs.

Claude Pichois, "Diderot devant 'Le Miroir'", Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, 1957, no.3: p.416-420.


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