Hall Bjørnstad

Position title: Honorary Fellow (2018-2019)

French, Indiana University-Bloomington; Director, Renaissance Studies Program

Portrait image of Hall Bjørnstad wearing a brown shirt and with his hand at his chin

The Crowning Example: Louis XIV and the Crisis of Royal Exemplarity

To speak of absolutism in the context of politics or culture is to invoke the figure of Louis XIV of France. Indeed, known by various superlative epithets – God-Given (Dieudonné), Louis the Great, or more famously, the Sun King – Louis represents for the historian as well as for the lay person the ultimate paradigm of the absolutist monarch. His 72-year long reign (1643-1715; born in 1638) was characterized from his early adult years by extravagant (not always rational) military campaigns and exuberant cultural displays, as epitomized by the opulence of Versailles. Yet, as modern historians have noted, the study of this period has resulted in “the contradiction of an absolutism that we know incomparably well in its details but without a good grasp of its totality or coherence” (Cosandey and Descimon). My project aims to fill that conceptual gap by bringing into conversation the detailed historical accounts of absolutist cultural production with recent scholarship on early modern sovereignty that surprisingly barely makes a passing reference to the cultural construction and symbolic authority of Louis XIV. To do so, I intend to recuperate the logic of exemplarity, which, I argue, undergirds the overarching project of royal glory, in order to show the complex ways in which a constitutive excess at the conceptual core of absolutism marks its importance as the beginning of our cultural and political modernity. This project will show that much more than the citizen as imagined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or the Declaration of the Rights of Man resulting from the French Revolution, we must imagine Louis XIV as the first example of what cultural historian Christopher Lasch has called “a culture of narcissism.” Louis’ very “example” would no longer be seen as the tail end of medieval monarchy but emerge as the beginning of the glorification of the “me” that reigns supreme on Facebook and social media in today’s world.

As a scholar of French seventeenth-century literature and culture, I explore the meaning of the syntagm “early modern”: a presumed conceptual and experiential proximity, which can only be constructively explored by acknowledging a simultaneous remoteness and otherness. I am particularly drawn toward material where the threshold character of the early modern is legible in the unresolved tensions between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and autonomy, authority and experience, feeling and reason, sacred and profane, human and non-human. I am the author of Créature sans créateur: Pour une anthropologie baroque dans les “Pensées” de Pascal (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010; Hermann Éditeurs, 2013); translator of Pascal’s Pensées to Norwegian (2007); co-editor, with Katherine Ibbett, of an issue of Yale French Studies titled “Walter Benjamin’s Hypothetical French Trauerspiel” (vol. 124, 2014) and with Helge Jordheim and Anne Régent-Susini of Universal History and the Making of the Global (Routledge, 2018); and the editor of Borrowed Feathers: Plagiarism and the Limits of Imitation in Early Modern Europe (Oslo, 2008).