Addressing the Absent Reader: the Dedicatory Epistles of Louis-Antoine Caraccioli

by Rebecca Short (University of Oxford)

When Louis-Antoine Caraccioli (1719-1802) came onto the French literary scene in the mid-eighteenth century, he made waves almost instantaneously. The author was, at least initially, an anti-philosophe: religious and somewhat reactionary, he staunchly opposed the Enlightenment ideals propagated by thinkers such as Voltaire.Like other anti-philosophes who preceded him, including literary critic Élie Catherine Fréron, he was the object of vicious and personal criticism by the cultural elite. Writing in the Correspondance littéraire (Feb 1764), Friedrich Melchior von Grimm named him ‘one of this century’s most detestable authors.’[1] This less-than flattering label might well suggest Caraccioli’s career was a failure, but this is not the case. For over sixty years, the author enjoyed considerable literary success. His works sold well and were widely translated. An author so ostensibly loathsome as Caraccioli might be expected to seek the favour of his allies, perhaps flattering them through dedicatory epistles. Since antiquity, emerging authors have prefaced their works with epistles to influential, often wealthy, patrons seeking both reputational and financial reward. Surprisingly, however, Caraccioli does the opposite, with dedicatory epistles featuring in just eight of his sixty-two published works. Moreover, his first two epistles do not address wealthy or influential patrons, nor even living persons, but rather abstract concepts and figures: ‘Time’ in the first instance, and the ‘shadow’ of deceased philosopher Nicolas Malebranche in the second. What can these unusual epistles tell us about the author, poised at the threshold of his career?

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Dedication to Time in Caraccioli’s Dialogue entre le siècle de Louis XIV et le siècle de Louis XV (1751)

In his debut work Dialogue entre le siècle de Louis XIV et le siècle de Louis XV (1751), Caraccioli acknowledges his full reliance upon Time: ‘One can be no more dependent than I am on you.’[2] The establishment of a hierarchy of dependence is common in the dedicator-dedicatee relationship and such deference would have clear significance for authors seeking financial support or reputational advantages. Although the respect which Caraccioli displays is less concrete in nature, he frames Time as the patron par excellence. While financial patrons offer material sustenance, to Time we can be said to owe everything. This reverential stance cannot be wholly sincere, however. In seeking favour where favour cannot be given, Caraccioli plays with the form of the dedicatory epistle. In addressing a concept rather than a person, he both demonstrates that he himself is not wholly dependent upon financial or reputational patronage – casting himself as a sufficient authority – and throws the general principle of worldly patronage into question. Much of the author’s subsequent literary career is dedicated to demonstrating and challenging the ephemerality of the mundane. This epistle is inscribed firmly within this project.

Just as Caraccioli’s first dedicatory epistle serves as a manifesto for the literary project which follows, so too does the second cast light on the author’s aims. The epistle which precedes several editions of La Conversation avec soi-même (1753) is addressed to ‘the shadow of Malebranche’ – a seventeenth-century priest and philosopher and one of Caraccioli’s primary influences. While the first epistle demonstrates what is to come, in this instance the author is reflecting back on his own intellectual hinterland. Once again, the reverence and deference we expect to read in a dedication are present; Caraccioli holds the philosopher in the highest esteem. Throughout his career, the author will continually laud Malebranche, confessing not only great admiration but his own intellectual inferiority. The posture of humility, again conventionally directed towards a living figure, is here assumed in relation to a figure who is unable to receive or respond to the praise.

Just as the epistle to Time focuses upon the nature of transience and changeability, so too does the dedication to Malebranche acknowledge the ephemerality of life. While Time is shown to be intrinsically and necessarily fleeting, and its passage inescapable, in the second letter Caraccioli lauds immutability as an ideal towards which he is striving. The author presents the philosopher as a bridge between heaven and earth; the fixity of his worldly ideas both serves as preparation for, and see their completion in, the immutability of eternity.  It might be expected for a Catholic author, in an apologetic text, to celebrate and draw attention to the fixity of heavenly beatitude. In addressing Malebranche’s ‘divinised spirit’[3], Caraccioli certainly does privilege ‘eternal decrees’,[4] however the revelation of such decrees is not limited to heaven. Malebranche, according to Caraccioli, participated in divine truths even on earth.

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Dedication to the shadow of Malebranche in Caraccioli’s La conversation avec soi-méme (1753), shown here from a new edition published in 1761

As the letter progresses, however, the pattern which sees Malebranche’s intransience contrasted with the mutability of the mundane is inverted. Caraccioli reveals that since his passing, Malebranche’s writings ‘are no longer in fashion.’[5] Their truth-value might not have changed, but appreciation for his thought has, like all fashionable trends, waned with the passing of time. The philosopher’s authority is called into question by the public. Although the dominant currents of Caraccioli’s age may neglect Malebranche’s thought, the author claims to swim against the tide; he remains a ‘perpetual admirer’ of the philosopher’s work. For an author to flatter a dedicatee with such praise is of course not unusual: “I’ve always loved your work” is a phrase we are all familiar with. While before, fixity was a quality attributed to Malebranche, here, it is Caraccioli himself who is in some way granted perpetuity.

Caraccioli’s effervescent praise of Malebranche moves from admiration to identification. In the short epistle, the author establishes a direct comparison between himself and the philosopher. Quickly catching his comparison, the author subsequently turns it around, readopting a posture of humility. He ends the letter abruptly, wondering ‘am I not honouring myself here?’[6] Here, Caraccioli touches the heart of the dedicatory epistle, and offers something of an explanation for his unconventional approach. By virtue of the affiliation they proclaim, such letters praise the dedicator as much as, if not more than, the dedicatee; they are inherently reflexive. Since they are both written by and comment upon the virtues of the author, such epistles can be said to be instrumental in his process of self-fashioning.

By neglecting to address ‘real life’ patrons in his early career, instead directing dedications to abstract concepts and figures, Caraccioli begins to fashion his authorial identity in three ways. He first introduces themes which will pervade his literary project, while drawing attention to his own intellectual influences. He asserts his reflexivity in the second instance, making explicit what readers perhaps already know: that the epistle serves to frame the author as much as praise the supposed recipient. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Caraccioli here points to the real destination of the dedication, not the dedicatee but rather the reader. At the dawn of his career, Caraccioli rejects external, material endorsement, implicitly inviting his readers to endorse him themselves, cast their own judgement upon him and his work, based upon his literary project and influences. Like Grimm, these readers may find his work detestable, but at least they will have reached this verdict themselves.

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Rebecca Short is an AHRC-funded DPhil student at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Her research centres around paratext as an instrument of authorial self-fashioning, with particular focus on the works of eighteenth-century apologist Louis-Antoine Caraccioli (1719-1802).

[1] Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, Corréspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm et de Diderot, eds., Jules-Antoine Taschereau and A. Chaudé, 15 vols (Paris: Furne, 1829-1831), vol. 3, p. 407. All citations have been translated from French for the purpose of this post.

[2] Louis-Antoine Caraccioli, Le Dialogue entre le siècle de Louis XIV et le siècle de Louis XV (1751), p. iv.

[3] Caraccioli, La Conversation avec soi-même, p. iv.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. vi.

[6] Ibid, p. xv.

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