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Paris in July : Madame du Châtelet

July 18, 2014 22 comments

Discours du le bonheur (1746/1747) by Emilie du Châtelet. (1706-1749) English title: Discourse on Happiness.

My participating to Paris in July organised by Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria feels a bit like cheating. The aim of this blogging event is to celebrate anything French and since I’m French and living in France, I ooze Frenchness with all my pores. What kind of challenge is that? Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity of this rendezvous with French culture to read and write about Le discours sur le bonheur d’Emilie du Châtelet. (Discourse on Happiness)

Chatelet_BonheurI discovered Emilie du Châtelet when I read Voltaire’s biography. They had a tumultuous relationship but remained friends until she died. Emilie du Châtelet was a born scientist; she studied mathematics and physics and her most important achievement is the translation of Newton’s work into French. For a long time, her translation remained the only one available in French. She was brilliant and Voltaire admired her mind. If she were born today in this country, she could have a stellar career. But she was a woman in the 18thC and according to her, studying hard was the only way a woman could reach fame and posterity. She sure did and not only as Voltaire’s lover and study buddy.

With her discourse, Emilie du Châtelet aims at enlightening younger people in order to share her experience of life and help them reach contentment and happiness sooner, without losing time to figure it out by themselves. She sums up her thought marvellously in this quote:

Tâchons de bien nous porter, de n’avoir point de préjugés, d’avoir des passions, de les faire servir à notre bonheur, de remplacer nos passions par des goûts, de conserver précieusement nos illusions, d’être vertueux, de ne jamais nous repentir, d’éloigner de nous les idées tristes, et de ne jamais permettre à notre cœur de conserver une étincelle de goût pour quelqu’un dont le goût diminue et qui cesse ne nous aimer. Il faut bien quitter l’amour un jour, pour peu qu’on vieillisse, et ce jour doit être celui où il cesse de nous rendre heureux. Enfin, songeons à cultiver le goût de l’étude, ce goût qui ne faire dépendre notre bonheur que de nous-mêmes. Préservons-nous de l’ambition, et surtout sachons bien ce que nous voulons être ; décidons-nous sur la route que nous voulons suivre, et tâchons de la semer de fleurs. Let’s try to be in good health, to be devoid of prejudice, to have passions and to make them serve our happiness, to replace our passions by hobbies. Let’s try to nurture our illusions, to be virtuous, to avoid repentance, to push away sad thoughts and to never allow our heart to keep a spark of liking for someone whose love vanishes and who stops loving us. We have to leave love behind, eventually, at least if we get older, and that day must be the day when love ceases to make us happy. And, let’s endeavour to cultivate our fondness for studying because this liking makes our happiness independent from other people. Let’s protect ourselves from ambition and most of all, let’s try to know exactly who we want to be. Then we can choose which path to follow and endeavour to have it paved with flowers.

Well, the quote is marvellous in French. I had to translate it myself, and I’m not able to translate anything into 18thC English; you’ll have to suffer my translation in 21st century English, spoken by a non-native. (Perhaps it just means it’s time for you to learn how to read in French.)

She managed to pack a lot of thoughts in this paragraph, didn’t she? I like her realism. She says before this quote that she’s only writing for people of her social class. She doesn’t pretend to bring her pearls of wisdom to people who don’t share the same background. Not that she thinks that she’s superior or that they’re not worth it. It’s more that she’s conscious that some of her recommendations are difficult to pursue when you have to fight for your daily bread. It’s more a matter of respect. I also like that she starts by mentionning being healthy as the first thing to wish for happiness. She doesn’t mean that you need to be healthy to be happy but that you must not endanger your health to remain on the path to happiness.

A few things speak to me in that quote. I do believe that passions, in the sense of hobbies you’re deeply invested in, make life more interesting and bring us pleasure and happiness. That’s what reading does to me. By nurturing your illusions she means to remain capable of wonderment, to watch a magician without trying to understand his tricks. She believes in suspension of belief as a way to live happy times. She wouldn’t want to know how they make special effects in films. It’s also something I share with her. I enjoy shows from the audience and I’m not much interested in what’s happening behind the curtains or in literature how the writer built their book.

You may be puzzled by the “avoid any repentance” concept. She explains her point. She thinks wallowing in repentance is harmful to one’s happiness; that one should acknowledge and repair their mistake but not rub into it for too long. Understand, apologise, make amends and move on. It goes with avoiding sad thoughts and not letting disquiet invade your life and thoughts and gnaw at your ability for happiness.

In the introduction of this discourse, Elisabeth Badinter argues that all the references to lost love, letting go of your lover are a reference to her relationship with Voltaire. That’s what happened, he got tired of her as a lover, not as a friend or as a thinker.

I personnally think of reading when she mentions studying as a liberating passion: it brings you happiness on your own and on your own terms. When I think of it now, I was an easy child or teenager for my parents; give me a place to stay, enough books and I’m happy. I don’t get bored, I don’t ask for more and I don’t need anyone to entertain me. Well, I do need someone: I need writers and publishers to provide me with these wonderful books.

The best advice she gives is probably in the end: know yourself and try to figure out which road is the best for you.

Voilà, that was my contribution to Paris in July, a way to make you discover a great French lady, someone who was equal to the best scientists of her time and lived a grand passion with Voltaire. I hope I stirred your curiosity, that you’ll check her Wikipedia page or even better that it encouraged to read her biography. She’s introduction to French spirit.

Anyway I say Hi from France. Thanks to Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria for hosting this event and thanks to the participants for the interest they show for my culture and my country.

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