, , , , , , ,


Physician Preparing an Elixir, Folio from a Materia Medica of Dioscorides, an illustrated manuscript dated A.H. 621/ A.D. 1224, Iraq or Northern Jazira, possibly Baghdad, Islamic (Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

President Obama visits King Salman of Saudi Arabia

President Obama was in Saudi Arabia, so many wondered if the President of the United States would attempt to save Raif Badawi.

King Salman’s Best Interest

King Salman has stated he would not change anything. Continuity is the word he used. During the first week he was in power there were four beheadings.

It may be in King Salman’s best interest to release Raif Badawi. There are a large number of Saudi liberals who could be radicalized if Raif Badawi’s sentence is not revoked. Rigidity on the part of the King could therefore lead to civil unrest.

But do absolute monarchs think in this manner and would Saudis revolt? We are dealing with human beings belonging to a different culture. Human nature is a universal, but cultures differ.

Louis XIV and Molière

I am of course remembering Louis XIV of France. Never was absolutism so absolute as in the days of the Sun King. I wrote my PhD thesis on 17th-century playwright Molière and discussed his somber plays. The Misanthrope (4 June 1666) and Dom Juan (15 February 1665) are chief examples. But so is Tartuffe (12 May 1664).

Le Misanthrope

In the Misanthrope, Alceste criticizes the court and says he would like to live in a desert. Molière saves the situation by giving Alceste a friend, Philinte, who is more tolerant of the faults of others. However, he agrees with Alceste:

Philinte to Alceste

Non, je tombe d’accord de tout ce qu’il vous plaît :
Tout marche par cabale et par pur intérêt ;
Ce n’est que la ruse aujourd’hui qui l’emporte,
Et les hommes devraient être faits d’autre sorte.
Tous ces défauts humains nous donnent dans la vie
Des moyens d’exercer notre philosophie…
(Le Misanthrope, V.i)

“No, I agree with you in all that you say. Everything goes by intrigue, and by pure influence. It is only trickery which carries the day in our time, and men ought to act differently. But is their want of equity a reason for wishing to withdraw from their society? All human failings give us, in life, the means of exercising our philosophy. It is the best employment for virtue; and if probity reigned everywhere, if all hearts were candid, just, and tractable, most of our virtues would be useless to us, inasmuch as their functions are to bear, without annoyance, the injustice of others in our good cause; and just in the same way as a heart full of virtue.” (See The Misanthrope online)

One cannot survive absolutism if one doesn’t learn to bend a little. In fact, one cannot  survive without bending a little. Interestingly, Alceste is in love with Célimène who is the embodiment of what he loathes, which suggests a certain ambivalence on his part.

Dom Juan

In Dom Juan (15 February 1665), no one can stop Dom Juan from being a conqueror. His conquests are the women he seduces. It has been suggested that Dom Juan is a Casanova. However, he is driven not by his sexual appetite, but by his need to conquer. He is cataloguing his “conquests.” No one can change him. His wife and his father appeal to him, to no avail. At one point, Dom Juan decides to hide behind the mask of feigned devotion, the perfect mask. However, heaven itself kills him: thunder, kills him.


In Tartuffe (12 May 1664), Tartuffe himself feigns devotion. Orgon, the pater familias who has adopted him, enjoys the fact that so pious an individual can turn every sin into a virtuous deed. (See Casuistry, RELATED ARTICLES). So he gives Tartuffe a box, a cassette, that contains evidence that Orgon was not always a loyal subject of the monarchs.

The play is particularly revealing. The characters manage to show Orgon, the heavy father, that Tartuffe wants to seduce his wife. They convince Orgon to hide under a table behind a table-cloth, so he can see for himself that his “saint” is flesh and blood, but it’s too late. Tartuffe has the incriminating cassette and owns Orgon’s possessions. The king, who sees all, sends an exempt to Orgon house. Orgon believes he is being arrested, but such is not the case. The king knows that Tartuffe has committed crimes. The exempt has come to arrest Tartuffe, not Orgon.

A “deus ex machina”

Therefore, a deus ex machina saves Orgon and his family. The powerlessness of Orgon’s family indicates that one can lose all.

Such is life under a despotic monarch. The King sees…  A deus ex machina intervenes when a situation is desperate. A deus ex machina is a machine. When all else fails, God intervenes. Only the King can rescue Orgon and his family.

Tartuffe, or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite, premièred on 12 May 1664, as part of a celebration probably inaugurating Versailles: Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée (FR). One can assume that the feast, which lasted from 7 to 13 May 1664, was an attempt to outshine Fouquet’s inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, an event that took place on 17 August 1661. Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée was a lavish feast, but it could not match the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte.[1]


Molière, Pierre Mignard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

La Fontaine

La Fontaine, attributed to François de Troy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Louis XIV and La Fontaine

After the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Jean de La Fontaine wrote his “Élégies aux nymphes de Vaux” (FR) a poem in which he praised Fouquet and expressed hope that Louis XIV would be compassionate towards a patron of the arts. Fouquet owned Vaux-le-Vicomte, a castle more beautiful than the King’s Louvre, formerly the main residence of the Kings of France.

Given Fouquet’s imprisonment, Jean de La Fontaine chose prudence. He made animals and vegetation speak and he used old fables, Æsop‘s, who lived in Greece but was born a “Levantin.[2] Æsop’s fables date back to the Indian Panchatantra, retold in Arabic by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (750 CE) and given the title Kalīlah wa Dimnah. La Fontaine’s eloquence is a mute eloquence, une éloquence muette. His characters are mostly animals and vegetation. This is the manner in which he could tell the truth. Absolute monarchs will not admit to seeing themselves in a lion. As I have written elsewhere, the lion is king, but the King is not a lion.


Therefore criticism of the King was worded in a dire-sans-dire, (to say without saying). Writers had to write in an “oblique” fashion, as did La Fontaine, Molière, and scholars of the French Enlightenment. The word “oblique” had been used by Michel de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592).

« Mes fantaisies se suivent, mais parfois c’est de loin, et se regardent, mais d’une vue oblique » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9. [eBook #3600]

(There is consistency to my fantasies, but at times from afar, and they look at one another, but in an oblique fashion. [my translation])

Note the use of the word fantaisies. That is an example of obliqueness in that Montaigne demotes himself. Montaigne’s obliqueness characterizes the writings of La Fontaine, Molière, Pascal (Lettres provinciales [1656 – 1657]), and the works of major figures of the French Enlightenment, not the least of whom was Voltaire (né François-Marie Arouet). Voltaire had found himself “embastillé” (thrown into the Bastille prison), for his attempts to promote tolerance.


Young Man holding a Skull, Frans Hals (Vanitas) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vanitas Vanitatum

In short, the King’s confessors, Bossuet in particular, were the only persons who could influence Louis. They preached that there was a God, the real God, above the King. So the divine rights of kings were not divine, as kings were mortals. They reminded the king that he would die: memento mori and that all was vanity: vanitas vanitatum. This argument did inspire restraint on the part of Louis XIV, but does King Salman have a confessor, a Bossuet (27 September 1627 – 12 April 1704), whose eloquence is unmatched?

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salma

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. Obama is stopping in Saudi Arabia on his way back to Washington from India to pay his condolences over the death of King Abdullah and to hold bilateral meetings with King Salman. (Photo credit: Reuters)


Let us return to President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Could President Obama speak about Raif Badawi?

I doubt it. King Abdullah had just died and the President went to meet the new king, King Salman. He had business to discuss with King Salman whose country is a member of the coalition fighting IS.

Had President Obama intervened, he may have been perceived as meddling. One cannot walk into someone else’s house, rearrange the furniture and settle in.

However, President Obama has now met King Salman. He travelled to his country. He was well received and the two leaders talked. The above photograph may be our best reassurance. Both leaders seem relaxed and in a jovial mood. So there may be a better future.

Let us hope Mr Badawi soon joins his family in Canada. The international community is pleading for his release. Nobel Prize laureates and scholars have asked for clemency. Kind-hearted people are ready to be flogged a hundred times each so Mr Badawi is spared further flagellation. Amnesty International is collecting names and funds.

Finally, we, in Canada, are waiting for Mr Badawi, but we cannot release him. That is for the Saudis to decide.

It has to end

Jihadi John is still beheading innocent people. There are constant beheadings, and Syrians have to leave their country.

In fact, President Obama is now being threatened, which was to be expected.


It’s time to end gratuitous beheadings and unimaginable violence.

Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.” (Eccl 1:2)

Yes, life is brief. So “gather ye roses while ye may.”


Sources and Resources


[1] Molière wrote: “Toutes les peintures ridicules qu’on expose sur les théâtres doivent être regardées sans chagrin de tout le monde. Ce sont miroirs publics, où il ne faut jamais témoigner qu’on se voie ; et c’est se taxer hautement d’un défaut, que se scandaliser qu’on le reprenne.” (La Critique de L’École des femmes, sc. VI.)

(Depictions that ridicule people on stage should not cause grief to anyone. These are public mirrors and people should never show that they see a reflection of themselves; they would be owning up to a fault in the utmost, if it should offend them to see it ridiculed. [my translation and rewording])

[2] See Les Fables de Pilpay ou la Conduite des Roys, 1698. (an eText)


Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tughra (Official Signature) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), ca. 1555–60, Turkey, Istanbul, Islamic (Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

© Micheline Walker
29 January 2015