Jacques Cazotte (1719-1792)

by Tili Boon Cuillé
Associate professor of French
Washington University in St. Louis

Jacques Cazotte's life, like his works, is a fascinating admixture of rationalism and the marvelous that often reveals like tendencies in his champions and critics. Known primarily for a single work, Le Diable amoureux, which earned Cazotte the title of the father of fantastic fiction, his convictions and creations remain a conundrum for scholarship.

Though several accounts of Cazotte's life have been published, Georges Décote is his most authoritative biographer as well as the editor of his correspondence. Cazotte was born to a bourgeois family on October 7, 1719 in Dijon, France. He attended the Jesuit Collège des Godrans from which Buffon and Crébillon also graduated. There he studied English, Spanish, and Italian in addition to theology and the classics, and met his lifelong friend, Jean-François Rameau, nephew of the famous composer, whom Diderot would later immortalize. Having earned his degree of bachelier en droit, Cazotte was admitted to the body of lawyers of Dijon in 1740, but left for Paris soon thereafter where he spent two years studying marine law. He received his brevet d'écrivain ordinaire de la Marine and served in Le Havre and Brest before being definitively stationed in Martinique during the War of the Austrian Succession. After a series of promotions he was named commissaire ordinaire and as such oversaw the disbanding of the French forces in Sainte Lucie.

Cazotte left Martinique for Paris in 1752 for what was meant to be a 6-month medical leave, returning in 1754 to take part in the Seven Year's War. He helped defend Fort Royal against the English but witnessed the loss of Guadeloupe, a loss he sought to stave off through repeated attempts to call attention to the incompetence and dishonesty of his superiors. Unable to recover from the aftereffects of scurvy, he retired to an estate located in Pierry in the Champagne region that he inherited from his brother and was later elected mayor. What is apparent in this brief account of Cazotte's administrative service is that he was trained in and forced to rely upon strategy, foresight, and logic.

Remembered as the author of a single work and often read quite literally, the extent and tenor of Cazotte's literary production can be somewhat surprising. He initially attracted the attention of literary circles during his first stay in Paris when he published La Patte du chat (1741) and Les Mille et une fadaises: Contes à dormir debout (1742), written in the style of the conte de fée and the conte oriental. Cazotte's claim that the hero of La Patte du chat had read all the works that circulated during the heyday of the tale from Mme d'Aulnoy to Crébillon fils is thought to be a veiled reference to his own familiarity with the genre. The manuscripts of ten songs he penned by the end of his second stay in Paris range from bucolic to scatological and make liberal use of onomatopoeia and patois. While on medical leave, Cazotte became the first to defend French music against Rousseau's onslaught in the Querelle des Bouffons, the quarrel between partisans of French and Italian opera that was waged in the Parisian press in the years 1752-4. While his letter entitled "La Guerre de l'Opéra" is an even-handed assessment of both sides of the quarrel, his second treatise "Observations sur la Lettre de Jean-Jacques Rousseau au sujet de la musique française" is a point-by-point rebuttal of Rousseau's notorious letter. While Cazotte sacrificed neither logic nor wit by virtue of taking sides, he did, perhaps, sacrifice some favorable public opinion by choosing to defend the interests of the French nation against the philosophes.

Cazotte wrote his first extended work once he retired. Ollivier (1763) is a narrative poem in twelve cantos written in the style of Ariosto and Voltaire that plays upon the genre of the chivalric romance much as his previous works had upon the genre of the tale. The work arose from two song texts Cazotte penned during his second sojourn to Paris and the fourth canto of the poem constitutes an ingenious parody of Rousseau's Letter on French Music, in which the author envisions what might transpire if music really were a language (Cuillé, Narrative Interludes). The farcical nature of Cazotte's literary production, which includes parodies of fables, tales, chivalric romance, songs, opera, and a treatise on music, is important to keep in mind when approaching the analysis of the work for which he is famed.

Le Diable amoureux is the second of four forays Cazotte made in the genre of the nouvelle, and the only one to have made the transition from a fanciful interest in the marvelous to a work of fantastic fiction. Cazotte wrote three different versions of his story before achieving the balance that assured it a place in literary history. In the first version, published in 1772, Alvare calls the devil's bluff, so to speak, and manages to escape his clutches. In the second, Alvare falls prey to the devil's wiles and spends the entirety of a second part executing his orders. Cazotte did not publish this version, but read it aloud to his guests at Pierry, who included, on occasion, such renowned figures as Chamfort, Condorcet, and Beaumarchais. In the third version, published in 1776, it remains unclear whether Alvare escapes or falls prey to the devil. This is the version that successfully prolongs the uncertainty that Todorov associates with the fantastic. Todorov began his Introduction à la littérature fantastique with an analysis of Le Diable amoureux. Though he soon dismissed it on the grounds that it contains insufficient material for a sustained study of the subject, Franc Schuerewegen recuperated the novella by demonstrating that the doubt as to whether events can be explained according to laws of the natural or supernatural is sustained in the mind of the main character and the reader until the end of the narrative. A careful reading of the text reveals that it is impossible to conclude whether Alvare has dreamt, imagined, narrowly escaped, or been irremediably seduced by the devil.

One of a flurry of faustian narratives to be written around the turn of the nineteenth century, Le Diable amoureux contributed not only to an aesthetics of the fantastic but also to the sexual and psychological components that have come to be associated with the genre. The search for his sources has led critics to conclude that Cazotte was familiar with Villars's Comte de Gabalis, Voragine's La Légende dorée, and Bekker's Le Monde enchanté, among others. The narrative also reveals that he was well versed in the philosophical discourse and aesthetics of his day. Interpretations of the novella are encumbered, however, by a curious chicken-and-egg scenario. Given the at least superficial resemblance between the spirit world evoked in Le Diable amoureux and the beliefs of the Martinists, critics have long debated whether Cazotte wrote the novella because he was a mystic or attracted the attention of the mystics because he wrote the novella. As a result, both in his day and since, readers have been inclined to wonder whether Cazotte actually believed what he wrote. The temptation to take the author at his word rather than detecting the irony so characteristic of the Enlightenment and the rest of his oeuvre is, indeed, a peculiarity of Cazotte criticism. Cazotte's own comments on the matter, cited from his correspondence, should put the subject to rest at least insofar as his novella is concerned. In Letter 53 he recollects having overheard a conversation between members of an unnamed sect and states: "Je me trouvai à portée d'entendre leur rapsodie, et profitant de tous leurs contes, dans un instant de gaieté, je fis le Diable amoureux, ne me doutant pas que je cassois bien des vitres. J'attirois sur moi l'attention de tous les sectaires de France, où sous différentes bannières il y en a bien plus qu'on ne l'imagine, et me vis exposé à la recherche et visite [...] de tous les chercheurs de choses occultes" (133-4). What started as a joke, therefore, ultimately took a serious turn. Despite or perhaps because of the difficulty in dissociating the man from his work, Cazotte's novella attracted the attention of Matthew Lewis, Charles Nodier, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Gérard de Nerval, whose works The Monk, Monsieur Cazotte, Der Elementargeist, and Les Illuminés attest to their having sustained his influence, reinforcing his place in the canon of fantastic fiction.

Cazotte's relationship with the Illuminists was ambivalent at best. He joined the Martinists of Lyon in 1777 or 1778, shortly after publishing the final version of his novella. He was affiliated with the order of Martinès de Pasqually, as opposed to the offshoot later headed by his disciple Saint-Martin. Though Saint-Martin expressed disapproval of Cazotte's level of investment in the society, suggesting that he had only a superficial understanding of its doctrines, the two followed a similar trajectory for they eventually left the order to pursue a more internal spirituality predicated upon direct communion with the Creator. They differed, however, in their views of the Catholic church, to which Cazotte remained faithful, and of the Revolution, to which he was unilaterally opposed. Cazotte renounced his membership three years later and thereafter became somewhat critical of the order, as well as of other Illuminist societies such as the Mesmerists, whom he denounced as charlatans, and the Freemasons, who were openly supportive of the Revolution. Instead, he cultivated a relationship with one Madame de la Croix, who remained his close friend and fellow mystic for the rest of his life. In Letters 49 and 53 of his correspondence, Cazotte scoffs at the common belief that he was a Martinist with the same wit and detachment that characterizes his literary works, acknowledging the force of the evidence that contributed to this impression and yet disavowing his adherence to their principles. La Harpe's somewhat romanticized account of Cazotte's accurate prediction of his own and others' deaths under the Revolution both attests and contributed to the author's reputation as a visionary, however.

Cazotte was to embark on one final major literary undertaking. He conceived of the Suite des Mille et une nuits as a continuation of Antoine Galland's Arabian Nights, and it was published as such in volumes 38-41 of Charles Joseph Mayer's Cabinet des fées (1788-9). Like Galland's work, it is part translation from the Arabic originals, furnished by Cazotte's collaborator Dom Denis Chavis, and part invention. Unlike his previous experiments in the genre, Cazotte's tales are consistent with Martinist doctrine, featuring the opposition of good and bad spirits and mankind's fight against the devil, and cognizant of both the appeal and dangers of the quest for higher knowledge. Gone is the legerdemain with which he treated such subjects in his Diable amoureux, as the reader is initiated into a spirit world whose lessons appear to be consistent with Cazotte's moral convictions.

The most forceful evidence that Cazotte deserves his reputation as illuminist and counter-revolutionary, however, is to be found in his correspondence subsequent to 1789, in which he interprets the Revolution as the work of the devil, characterizing it in millenarian and apocryphal terms, claims the king is protected by a legion of spiritual beings, and expresses faith in his own ability to influence the course of history via his spiritual practices. Cazotte's political position was more moderate than such language would imply, for he defended the rights of the Tiers-état as well as the life of their monarch. His most virulent words were reserved for the Jacobins and the nobility, particularly the émigrés, whom he considered a threat to the king. Such declarations eventually led to his death. His letters to his childhood friend Pouteau, secretary to one of the king's ministers, including recommendations as to how to restore the king's power entitled "Conseils au roi Louis XVI," were discovered when the Revolutionaries took possession of the Tuileries. Cazotte was promptly arrested and the remainder of his papers seized. He was imprisoned in the Abbaye Saint-Germain des Près in Paris and arraigned during the September massacres, when his daughter Elizabeth managed to sway public opinion in his favor. He was arrested again three weeks later, however, retried by Fouquier-Tinville, and guillotined on September 25th, 1792 at the age of 73, four months before the king whose life he had sought to defend. Known as the "Marat of Royalism," his last words on the scaffold were "Je meurs comme j'ai vécu, fidèle à Dieu et mon Roi." As Décote suggests, Cazotte's illuminism seems to have been part of a quest for closer spiritual communion with God, his opposition to the Enlightenment and Revolution a resistance to the doubt that such was possible. Regardless of one's interpretation of the relationship between the author's life and works, Le Diable amoureux is situated at the juncture between the marvelous and the fantastic, between satirist and true believer.


Select Critical Bibliography

Castex, Pierre-George. Le Conte fantastique en France de Nodier à Maupassant. Paris: Corti, 1951.

Cazotte, Jacques. Le Diable amoureux. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

---. Oeuvres badines et morales, historiques et philosophiques. Edited by Jean-François Bastien. Paris, 1816-17.

Cuillé, Tili Boon. "The Devil in Drag: Moral Injunction or Social Leaven?" Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies 17, no. 2 (1999): 30-42.

---. "La Vraisemblance du Merveilleux: Operatic Aesthetics in Cazotte's Fantastic Fiction." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 34 (2005): 173-95.

---. Narrative Interludes: Musical Tableaux in Eighteenth-Century French Texts. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2006.

Décote, Georges, ed. Correspondance. Paris: Klincksieck, 1982.

Décote, Georges. L'Itinéraire de Jacques Cazotte, 1719-1792 : De la fiction littéraire au mysticisme politique. Geneva: Droz, 1984.

La Harpe, Jean-François de. La Prophétie de Cazotte. Paris, G. Govone, 1927.

Milner, Max. Le Diable dans la littérature française de Cazotte à Baudelaire. Paris: Corti, 1960.

Schuerewegen, Franc. "Pragmatique et Fantastique dans 'Le Diable Amoureux' de Cazotte. Litterature 60 (1985): 56-72.

Shaw, Edward Pease. Jacques Cazotte (1719-1792). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la littérature fantastique. Paris: Seuil, 1976.

Van Leeuwen, Richard. "The Thousand and One Nights and the Formation of Genres: The Case of Jacques Cazotte." In Crossings and Passages in Genre and Culture, edited by Christian Syska and Friederike Pannewick. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 2003.

Von Mücke, Dorothea E. The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Winkler, Markus. "Cazotte lu par E.T.A. Hoffmann: Du Diable amoureux à Der Elementargeist." Arcadia: Zeitschrift fur Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft 23, no. 2 (1988): 113-132.