The Imaginary Invalid – 3rd Day of Lenaia 2021

When Argan – a complete hypocondriac – decides to make the daughter of his defunct wife, marry a young but unattractive medical doctor, he acknowledges that his goal is personal and selfish: he’s afraid of sickness and death, and wants to have a doctor in his family, so he can be assured of getting the medicines he needs. Surrounded by affected, ostentatious and pedantic doctors who don’t have the skills they pretend to have, Argan believe in them like in prophets. His brother Béralde wants to explain why he thinks Argan should accept his daughter marrying the man she loves instead of the doctor he needs. Their conversation ends up in a symptomatic and archetypical opposition of arguments about medical legitimacy.

To understand the trial Béralde is setting against medicine, we need to remember that 17th century’s doctors had actually the pretention which is depicted here, for very arguable medical skills, compared with 21st century real sciences. But our epoch is not empty of modern cases like Mr. Purgon, in new pseudosciences which had not been tested enough over time. The satire written by Molière here, is attacking a lack of instruction and a form of blissful naivety from common people and addressed to people who assume scholar authority, even when they have few knowledge themselves. This particuliar scene shows a mise en abyme as the characters actually gossip about the playright himself. Ironically, this play is the last one that Molière actually played himself – as Argan – while he was sick and died a while after the theatre curtains were closed.

JSD


Act II – Scene III

BÉRALDE

Let me ask you, brother, above all things not to excite yourself during our conversation.

ARGAN

I agree.

BÉRALDE

To answer without anger to anything I may mention.

ARGAN

Very well.

BÉRALDE

And to reason together upon the business I want to discuss with you without any irritation.

ARGAN

Dear me! Yes. What a preamble!

BÉRALDE

How is it, brother, that, with all the wealth you possess, and with only one daughter—for I do not count the little one—you speak of sending her to a convent?

ARGAN

How is it, brother, that I am master of my family, and that I can do all I think fit?

BÉRALDE

Your wife doesn’t fail to advise you to get rid, in that way, of your two daughters; and I have no doubt that, through a spirit of charity, she would be charmed to see them both good nuns.

ARGAN

Oh, I see! My poor wife again! It is she who does all the harm, and everybody is against her.

BÉRALDE

No, brother; let us leave that alone. She is a woman with the best intentions in the world for the good of your family, and is free from all interested motives. She expresses for you the most extraordinary tenderness, and shows towards your children an inconceivable goodness. No, don’t let us speak of her, but only of your daughter. What can be your reason for wishing to give her in marriage to the sort of a doctor?

ARGAN

My reason is that I wish to have a son-in-law who will suit my wants.

BÉRALDE

But it is not what your daughter requires, and we have a more suitable match for her.

ARGAN

Yes; but this one is more suitable for me.

BÉRALDE

But does she marry a husband for herself or for you, brother?

ARGAN

He must do both for her and for me, brother; and I wish to take into my family people of whom I have need.

BÉRALDE

So that, if your little girl were old enough, you would give her to an apothecary?

ARGAN

Why not?

BÉRALDE

Is it possible that you should always be so infatuated with your apothecaries and doctors, and be so determined to be ill, in spite of men and nature?

ARGAN

What do you mean by that, brother?

BÉRALDE

I mean, brother, that I know of no man less sick than you, and that I should be quite satisfied with a constitution no worse than yours. One great proof that you are well, and that you have a body perfectly well made, is that with all the pains you have taken, you have failed as yet in injuring the soundness of your constitution, and that you have not died of all the medicine they have made you swallow.

ARGAN

But are you aware, brother, that it is these medicines which keep me in good health? Mr. Purgon says that I should go off if he were but three days without taking care of me.

BÉRALDE

If you are not careful, he will take such care of you that he will soon send you into the next world.

ARGAN

But let us reason together, brother; don’t you believe at all in medicine?

BÉRALDE

No, brother; and I do not see that it is necessary for our salvation to believe in it.

ARGAN

What! Do you not hold true a thing acknowledged by everybody, and revered throughout all ages?

BÉRALDE

Between ourselves, far from thinking it true, I look upon it as one of the greatest follies which exist among men; and to consider things from a philosophical point of view, I don’t know of a more absurd piece of mummery, of anything more ridiculous, than a man who takes upon himself to cure another man.

ARGAN

Why will you not believe that a man can cure another?

BÉRALDE

For the simple reason, brother, that the springs of our machines are mysteries about which men are as yet completely in the dark, and nature has put too thick a veil before our eyes for us to know anything about it.

ARGAN

Then, according to you, the doctors know nothing at all.

BÉRALDE

Oh yes, brother. Most of them have some knowledge of the best classics, can talk fine Latin, can give a Greek name to every disease, can define and distinguish them; but as to curing these diseases, that’s out of the question.

ARGAN

Still, you must agree to this, that doctors know more than others.

BÉRALDE

They know, brother, what I have told you; and that does not effect many cures. All the excellency of their art consists in pompous gibberish, in a specious babbling, which gives you words instead of reasons, and promises instead Of results.

ARGAN

Still, brother, there exist men as wise and clever as you, and we see that in cases of illness every one has recourse to the doctor.

BÉRALDE

It is a proof of human weakness, and not of the truth of their art.

ARGAN

Still, doctors must believe in their art, since they make use of it for themselves.

BÉRALDE

It is because some of them share the popular error by which they themselves profit, while others profit by it without sharing it. Your Mr. Purgon has no wish to deceive; he is a thorough doctor from head to foot, a man who believes in his rules more than in all the demonstrations of mathematics, and who would think it a crime to question them. He sees nothing obscure in physic [1], nothing doubtful, nothing difficult, and through an impetuous prepossession, an obstinate confidence, a coarse common sense and reason, orders right and left purgatives and bleedings, and hesitates at nothing. We must bear him no ill-will for the harm he does us; it is with the best intentions in the world that he will send you into the next world, and in killing you he will do no more than he has done to his wife and children, and than he would do to himself, if need be.

ARGAN

It is because you have a spite against him. But let us come to the point. What is to be done when one is ill?

BÉRALDE

Nothing, brother.

ARGAN

Nothing?

BÉRALDE

Nothing. Only rest. Nature, when we leave her free, will herself gently recover from the disorder into which she has fallen. It is our anxiety, our impatience, which does the mischief, and most men die of their remedies, and not of their diseases.

ARGAN

Still you must acknowledge, brother, that we can in certain things help nature.

BÉRALDE

Alas! brother; these are pure fancies, with which we deceive ourselves. At all times, there have crept among men brilliant fancies in which we believe, because they flatter us, and because it would be well if they were true. When a doctor speaks to us of assisting, succouring nature, of removing what is injurious to it, of giving it what it is defective in, of restoring it, and giving back to it the full exercise of its functions, when he speaks of purifying the blood, of refreshing the bowels and the brain, of correcting the spleen, of rebuilding the lungs, of renovating the liver, of fortifying the heart, of re-establishing and keeping up the natural heat, and of possessing secrets wherewith to lengthen life of many years—he repeats to you the romance of physic. But when you test the truth of what he has promised to you, you find that it all ends in nothing; it is like those beautiful dreams which only leave you in the morning the regret of having believed in them.

ARGAN

Which means that all the knowledge of the world is contained in your brain, and that you think you know more than all the great doctors of our age put together.

BÉRALDE

When you weigh words and actions, your great doctors are two different kinds of people. Listen to their talk, they are the cleverest people in the world; see them at work, and they are the most ignorant.

ARGAN

Heyday! You are a great doctor, I see, and I wish that some one of those gentlemen were here to take up your arguments and to check your babble.

BÉRALDE

I do not take upon myself, brother, to fight against physic; and every one at their own risk and peril may believe what he likes. What I say is only between ourselves; and I should have liked, in order to deliver you from the error into which you have fallen, and in order to amuse you, to take you to see some of Molière’s comedies on this subject.

ARGAN

Your Molière is a fine impertinent fellow with his comedies! I think it mightily pleasant of him to go and take off honest people like the doctors.

BÉRALDE

It is not the doctors themselves that he takes off, but the absurdity of medicine.

ARGAN

It becomes him well, truly, to control the faculty! He’s a nice simpleton, and a nice impertinent fellow to laugh at consultations and prescriptions, to attack the body of physicians, and to bring on his stage such venerable people as those gentlemen.

BÉRALDE

What would you have him bring there but the different professions of men? Princes and kings are brought there every day, and they are of as good a stock as your physicians.

ARGAN

No, by all the devils! if I were a physician, I would be revenged of his impertinence, and when he falls ill, I would let him die without relief. In vain would he beg and pray. I would not prescribe for him the least little bleeding, the least little injection, and I would tell him, “Die, die, like a dog; it will teach you to laugh at us doctors.”

BÉRALDE

You are terribly angry with him.

ARGAN

Yes, he is an ill-advised fellow, and if the doctors are wise, they will do what I say.

BÉRALDE

He will be wiser than the doctors, for he will not go and ask their help.

ARGAN

So much the worse for him, if he has not recourse to their remedies.

BÉRALDE

He has his reasons for not wishing to have anything to do with them; he is certain that only strong and robust constitutions can bear their remedies in addition to the illness, and he has only just enough strength for his sickness.

ARGAN

What absurd reasons. Here, brother, don’t speak to me anymore about that man; for it makes me savage, and you will give me his complaint.

BÉRALDE

I will willingly cease, brother; and, to change the subject, allow me to tell you that, because your daughter shows a slight repugnance to the match you propose, it is no reason why you should shut her up in a convent. In your choice of a son-in-law you should not blindly follow the anger which masters you. We should in such a matter yield a little to the inclinations of a daughter, since it is for all her life, and the whole happiness of her married life depends on it.

Molière, The Imaginary Invalid (French : Le Malade imaginaire)

[1] The word physic had a specific connotation in the 17th century, in this context: Béralde is talking about medicine and not ‘physics’ as we use it today.


Jean-Jacques Grandville, Argan and Monsieur Purgon

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