Never more clearly than in two French satirical plays by Moliere, Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, do we find the longing to know and be known. Humans are born with the hard wiring to read the intentions of others but many of us have that capacity thwarted during childrearing when caregivers contradict the reality of children with reprimands such as ‘You don’t want that’; or ‘Yes, you are cold’; or ‘You don’t mean that’; the worst case scenario might well be denial of sexual abuse when adults pretend with children that it is not happening. Thus we learn to doubt what we know to be so. Because children’s survival depends on attachment, children acquiesce their own reality to that of their caregivers.
Tartuffe, a con artist who dupes Orgon of all his property by posing as a Holy Man and turning Orgon against his own family, is seen by all except Orgon and his mother Madam Pernelle for the imposter he is. How did Orgon become so unseeing? Part of the answer surely lies with transgenerational transmission of attacks on the reality of others. Mme Pernelle accuses her grandchildren of not listening to her but it is she who prattles on, insulting her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law Elmire. She also contradicts them about Tartuffe’s character insisting “all of you Must love him” and “Rubbish!” (Act One, Scene I). Orgon has learned from his mother that relationship can have only one subject, not accommodating the other’s reality, and so inflicts the same on his daughter Marianne. Wishing to force her to marry Tartuffe, he tells her “Because I am resolved it shall be true. That it’s my wish should be enough for you.” (Act Two, Scene 1)
While Tratuffe is sometimes also named The Hypocrite, we also find great hypocrisy in The Misanthrope, a later play in which Moliere made more subtle his spoofing so as not to so plainly offend the Church and the Aristocracy. Our misanthrope Alceste claims to dislike all the courtly flatterers who, behind the backs of others, gossip and malign. He speaks his opinion, mostly tactlessly, and pleads for authenticity from others. Meanwhile, Alceste loves a young widow Celimene who herself embodies all the disingenuousness against which Alceste rails, an illustration of how we are multiple selves, at times heroically going against the politesse, at times foolishly expecting the ideal to be concretized. Alceste might seek out Celimene perhaps because offstage (behind closed doors) Celimene and Alceste share their ‘true’ selves with one another. Alceste says to her, “Let’s speak with open hearts, then and begin…” (last line, Act Two, Scene 1)