Masks

Anonymity is an interesting thing. People can choose to remain anonymous for many reasons, but it usually is related to personal protection. They conceal their real identities in order to safeguard their reputation but sometimes the stakes are higher and they are shielding their livelihoods, liberty, or even their very lives.  The concept became my companion for a couple of years when I was preparing a modern edition of a poem that was published in 1636 and that was a vicious, vitriolic, and scurrilous -in other words, delicious- attack on the authoritarian government of France’s then prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu. The quest to find out who really penned the work turned me into a detective and I was surprised when I was finally able to resolve the mystery, almost four centuries later.

Cardinal Richelieu, as seen in the steely gaze of the portrait above by Philippe de Champaigne, was not a man you’d ever want to mess with or you would soon find yourself in the Bastille, as did five unfortunate writers all suspected of having produced the satirical poem. I should add that I warmed to him during work on the edition as he had some touchingly human traits. He left provisions in his will for the luxurious upkeep of his 24 pet cats, an unusual affection in a period in which live cats were routinely buried alive in the walls of new buildings in order to bring good luck (to the occupants rather than to the unhappy feline). The work is called the Miliade and circulated around Paris like wildfire. It lampooned every member of the government, detailing everything from sexual indiscretions of the cabinet’s inner circle to Richelieu’s long-suffering medical condition of haemorrhoids. These were so painful that he had to lie down flat on his back when travelling in carriages on their floor, to avoid the movement agitating his backside. The Cardinal was absolutely fuming at the poem’s existence and was said to be hopping mad. He ordered a crackdown that was so ruthless that only two copies have survived out of the hundreds that circulated around the capital. No one dared to be found with a copy since they would be in grave danger; this was deemed to be an issue of national security.

As I found out with being a literary sleuth, it is extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, to cover our tracks completely. We can don a physical disguise and be betrayed by our walk, our individual gait. And I uncovered the identity of the poem’s creator by two principal facts. Firstly, the poem uses a distinct literary technique very liberally. If you look at a page from one of those two surviving copies, above, you will see that the author was rather partial to something called anaphora, which sounds like a disease but describes when the same sound, syllable, or word is repeated at the beginning of lines. “De” is repeated twice and then there is a frenzy of lines that start with “En”. I examined the works, published and private, of all of the different people who might have written the poem, and only one of them is partial to this technique of anaphora. It’s quite distinctive but just like the way we drive or use a fork in a certain way, we might be entirely unaware of it. The second clue was in a glaring omission. Every major figure connected to the régime is mocked and satirized with one exception: Jean Chapelain. This is surprising since he was close to Richelieu. It’s doubly surprising when his character is considered as his meanness was legendary. He wore out his clothes and his threadbare wig was the stuff of urban legends (a seventeenth-century Donald Trump), but the ones that turn out to be real. A poem was even written about his virtually hairless wig later on. And this figure of mirth is entirely absent from the Miliade. There is not one word, not one allusion. Only one of the possible authors of the poem had a close connection with Chapelain, and it’s the same man who loved using anaphora.

I was very satisfied in solving this mystery four centuries later and the edition appeared in 2010. His name is Jacques Favereau and he had good reason to lie low since he actually worked for the government. At some point he must have become disillusioned and operated as a double agent, paying lip service to the absolutist state yet pining for its collapse. His poem almost achieved that. It is sobering that no matter how we try to hide, it is often ourselves who are responsible for our own downfall. We seem to have an enormous capacity for personal survival but equally a tenacious penchant for self-destruction.

Anonymity is, once again, a burning topic in our own society with the Internet. We have an amazing tool for communication, exchange, and knowledge, and yet true anonymity is virtually impossible. This is a great paradox, because while we might believe we have liberty and freedom of expression, it can be debated how far we have travelled from the repressive government of Cardinal Richelieu. The Bastille, the notorious prison and symbol of oppression, into which the politician would confine his opponents, was a place in which prisoners could be detained without charge, access to lawyers, and indefinitely, for reasons of national security. During the past decade, some western countries have enacted laws that enable those respective states to do exactly the same things. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . .

Today’s cufflinks are made out of 830 grade silver and have an organic form that suggests a honeycomb, which is an apt image to have of any society, with drones, workers, and the queen, a whole hierarchy in a beehive. The cufflinks definitely have the air of the mid-1970s about them. They also don’t have a maker’s mark so there is no indication of who designed this pair. There will be specialists who could speculate and even conclude who made this anonymous pair somewhere out there, because the design, pattern, and artisanship are all revealing and the lesson of history is that there is no such thing as authentic and true anonymity. Someone manufactured this pair of cufflinks and I find them pleasing. Without leaving a clearly identifiable mark, they have nonetheless left a mark. And that’s more than most.

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