The Tartuffian phase

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Tue Jul 29 18:47:42 MDT 2003

Tartuffe: Slithering Between Illusion and Reality

By Diana Major Spencer
>From Souvenir Program, 1993

Some translations subtitle Tartuffe "the Hypocrite"; others, "the Impostor."
Either way, the title character of Molière's 1664 comedy of humors slithers
between what is and what appears to be. While illusion and reality
constitute a universal theme of literature, the particularly appropriate
metaphor by which Molière labels his sanctimonious fraud adds a tantalizing
dimension to Tartuffe's black, subtle, subterranean soul. His very name
bespeaks a linguistic history that associates hidden meanings, trifling,
cheating, falsehood, and hypocrisy with a mysterious underground fungus.

The name Tartuffe means "truffle"--unfortunately, not the chocolate kind.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the first use of truffle for a
chocolate confection in the 1926-27 U.S. Army and Navy Stores Catalog. The
truffle Molière knew is a subterranean fungus of knobby, shriveled
appearance, which cannot be located by sight or logic, but only, as John
Evelyn wrote in 1644, "by an hogg [i.e. pig] train'd to it." Even now, wrote
gastronome Craig Claiborne in the 1970 Time-Life volume of Classic French
Cooking, "no one knows exactly how they grow, and no one has been able to
cultivate them successfully" (53).

Truffles were introduced, along with mushrooms, into French cuisine by
Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century and elevated to their current
elegant status by La Varenne, a chef whose culinary creations delighted
Molière's king, Louis XIV. In fact, more than once Louis adorned festivities
for which La Varenne oversaw the cuisine and Molière the entertainment.

Tartuffe derives from provincial Italian forms similar to tartoufli, "little
truffle," which in German became Kartoffel, "potato," another product of the
mysterious underground. As a common noun, tartuffe entered the English
language shortly after the production of Molière's play as an epithet
meaning "a hypocritical pretender, especially to religion." The OED cites a
character, Tartuffo, from an Italian play, as perhaps Molière's source and
states that both Old French and Italian used their respective cognates to
mean "truffle," the subterranean fungus, or by extension "any hidden
production"-like a potato or a hypocrite.

Molière's aptly named Tartuffe, like the lowly fungus, is the center of
attention even when not in sight. Prior to his humble, penitent appearance,
he has been the exclusive topic of conversation--sometimes cautionary,
sometimes caustic--between the grandmother and the rest of the family, the
brother-in-law and the maid, the daughter and her stepmother, the stepmother
and her brother, the son and the maid, the daughter and her beloved, and
everybody and the myopic, monomaniacal father, Orgon. Only Orgon and his
mother fail to sniff out the black fungus, Tartuffe, who consequently
trifles with their purses and affections.

Since before Molière's time, the French have honored the aphrodisiac
properties of truffles. Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste,
wrote in 1725, "Whosoever pronounces the word truffle gives voice to . . .
erotic and gastronomical dreams equally in the sex that wears skirts and the
one that sprouts a beard" (96). He set out to investigate the "amorous
effect" of truffles and found them a believable excuse for risqué behavior.
Appropriately, Molière gave Tartuffe a raging propensity for the flesh.

The first English use of truffle was a verb meaning "to cozen, to cheat, to
deceive, to fool." Trifle, as in "trifle with one's affections," showed
variant spellings with u in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, when
it was adapted from an Old French word meaning "mockery, trumpery," and the
fungus. Tartuffe's attempted seduction of Elmire could be called "trifling"
or "truffling" with her, just as he "truffled" with Orgon's generosity and
trust--or as he nearly "tartuffed" them all.

What better name for an impostor? It suited the nineteenth-century English
enough to inspire tartufferie, tartuffism, tartuffian, and tartuffish to
describe hypocrisy of various sorts. Ironically, the character Tartuffe
remains hidden from the audience until Act 3, and the play proved so odious
to both ecclesiastical and political authorities that it remained unproduced
until 1669, five years after its completion. Thus, both the play and its
title character smack of "tartuffism" or "tartuffery"--one as "tartuffer,"
the other as "tartuffee."

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