Computational philology busts academic snobs on Molière

I very much appreciate the irony with which the term “elites” is employed these days, as the snobbishness of most academic elites is undeserved. Most of the things academics present as facts are simply their opinions, and many of their opinions are highly… uneducated… and the product of silly prejudices. But it’s not like your opinions about French literature are going to lead to an economic depression or nuclear holocaust, so there’s no corrective mechanism for stupidity in the marketplace of ideas. You get to toss another article on the publish-or-perish heap and no one cares if the contents are even real. Then other similarly situated academics cite the article you wrote that no one read, and a truthiness emerges about a subject.

That has certainly been the case with Molière, whom academics have accused of being a plagiarist, for literally no other reason than they thought he was too uneducated to produce such highbrow fare. (And, yes, they did the same thing with Shakespeare.)

For at least a century, scholars have argued that the supposed lack of education of Molière, the French playwright responsible for seminal masterpieces including Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope, means he could not have written them. Now academics say they have resolved the controversy once and for all, using an algorithm to find that Molière – born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622– was the author of all his plays.

Molière’s father was one of the appointed furnishers of the royal household, but his son rejected this career for a life on the stage, touring, acting and writing the searing comic plays that would change the face of French theatre. In 1919, French writer Pierre Louÿs claimed that the poet Pierre Corneille had ghostwritten Molière’s most famous works. Since then, questions about Molière’s level of education, his busy schedule and the rarity of surviving manuscripts have kept the debate going.

Well, that theory has now been busted with technology.

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