“The you and the you”, pronouns of the distance

“An old friend becomes President of the Republic: would I continue to tell him you?” This good question appears in the book of Etienne Kern, professor of letters in preparatory classes and author of several essays which proceed from good ideas. After A history of hatred of writers, from Chateaubriand to Proust or A story of the parents of writers, from Balzac to Marguerite Duras (co-written with Anne Boquel), he publishes The you and the you, the French art of complicating things. Alert and scholar, the book reviews the subtle variations in the uses of tu and you in our language, depending on the course of history but also on social and professional backgrounds. Most of the examples which illustrate the codes of an era, Etienne Kern extracts them from literature, from Racine, Boileau, Molière, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, Guitry, Aragon. He also devotes a personal and interesting commentary to Aurélien. The abundance of quotes and the fluidity of their appearances make this essay tasty. The author advances in literary history with intelligence and malice, and spells out a few famous sentences. “Come in here, Jean Moulin” appears of course in his harvest.

The use of one or the other of the two pronouns does not obey fixed rules; it’s all about nuances: “In terms of you and you, is there anything other than special cases?” No, because they are “Our complexes, our history, the social memory that lives in us” which determine the choice of formal or formal: “Everyone knows the anecdote of the old activist who asks François Mitterrand (then secretary general of the party) if he can talk to him and who hears himself answer:” If you want. “” Between parents and children, the address has disappeared, but “Reciprocal familiarity is the result of a long history”. The turn towards the you occurs in the last years of the XVIIIe century. This is “Sensitive age”, the one where emotion and authenticity begin to reign, especially in philosophy, literature and painting. The ideals of 1789 temporarily accelerate this movement. The Revolution hopes to put a red cap on the old tradition of “you” but the pronoun resumes its rights from the Directory in the political field. “Citizen” and “Citizen” give way to «monsieur» and «madame».

Etienne Kern notes the authorized transgressions, among which are the solemn and Malrucian familiarity with “Come in here, Jean Moulin”, and the opening of theEpistle to the King de Boileau, dating from 1675: “Great king, stop winning, or I stop writing”. The “you” belonged to the codes of the epistle in verse and came from Latin Antiquity. Boileau’s irreverence is “Delicious” because he wrote at the time when Louis XIV “Suffered serious setbacks against the Dutch and their allies”. Today the vouvoyer is losing ground, but less in France than elsewhere. Etienne Kern is delighted: “As Levinas thought, a phrase like ‘after you’ is at the very foundation of ethics.”


Virginie Bloch-Lainé

Etienne Kern The you and the you. The French art of complicating things Flammarion, 208 pp., 19 € (ebook : 13,99 €).

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