Monday, 11 January 1999

Molière: Le Malade Imaginaire (1673)

Translations: John Wood, 1959 and Martin Sorrell, 1994 (both under the title The Hypochondriac)
Editions: Penguin, 1969; Nick Hern, 1994
Review number: 182
Review amended: 4 May 1999

Le Malade Imaginaire is the greatest and best-known of Molière's attacks on doctors. Like many of his other well-known plays, it is the exaggerated nature of the main character which provides the comedy; Argan is hypochondria personified in the same way that Harpagon is miserliness and Tartuffe hypocritical piety.

From the start of the play, with Argan in his bed adding up his doctors' bills in between injections and doses of medicine, we realise that he is soon going to be ruined by his hypochondria despite his riches, encouraged by his doctors who are anxious to make money out of him while they can - as long as he can withstand their ministrations. In order to be able to afford doctors for longer, he decides to marry his elder daughter Béline to Thomas Diafiorus, the son of one of his senior doctors, just qualified as a doctor himself. This is to secure himself cheap treatment as a member of the family, but unfortunately Thomas is not really the sort of man to appeal to any woman, let alone Béline, who has already fallen in love with another man. Stuffed full of useless pseudo-knowledge, which he appears to still believe, he seems never to have encountered a woman before (except on the dissection table). He is far more a figure of fun than the older physicians who use Latin and Greek philosophical terms only to confuse their victims. It is only when Toinette, Béline's pert maidservant, disguises herself as a doctor that Argan's family is able to begin to wean him from his hypochondria and persuade him to accept Béline's marriage to her lover Cléante.

The primitive state of medicine in Molière's time was one of the main reasons why doctors were such a target for his dislike and satire. When their cures were so dicey, it often seemed better to try and cope with an illness without them rather than risk being killed by the attempted cure. (Argan's brother says as much in the play.) The doctors used their pseudo-schientific language to justify their guesswork, to confuse their patients and convince them of their superior knowledge. This is of course a method used very commonly by those on the fringes of science (and a desire to impress by using technical language is not unknown elsewhere), because of the way that science is venerated by those who do not understand much of it. This is particularly true of the "science" touted by the New Age movement, even though that movement is generally anti-scientific in its worldview. This is particularly true of astrology, though other pseudo-sciences which may contain a grain of truth also do it, which is a pity since it tends to prevent any genuine scientific investigation into what may be happening. (I'm thinking about such alternative medicene as acupuncture and homeopathy, for example.)

The two translations show very well the differences between a fairly academic translation, typical of Penguin Classics, and one designed for performance, as the Nick Hern series are.

Martin Sorrell keeps the traditional title of the play, and it is hard to feel that John Wood improves upon it. It is the illnesses which are imaginary, after all, and The Imaginary Invalid really imples that the invalid is imaginary, rather than the invalidism. (Of course, the invalid actually is imaginary - he is only a character in a play - but that's moving into philosophical regions rather beyond what I suspect the title is intended to convey.)

Where Sorrell does make changes is in the medical language. He updates this to more modern-sounding scientific gobbledegook, on the grounds that our knowledge of Greek and Latin tends to be less than that of a seventeenth century audience. I am not sure this is really a problem, since the modern medical vocabulary is still full of terms borrowed from Latin and Greek. What has happened, though, is that a lot of seventeenth century medical language has passed into common speech. The philosophical idea behind medicine at the period was that the body contained four humours, and these needed to be kept in balance for good physical and mental health. The dominant humour determined your personality, and the names of the humours have become common descriptions of emotion or personality: bile, choler, phlegmatic, sanguine and so on. Doctors today also do not talk about astrology; the casting of horoscopes is not considered a valid method of diagnosis. Thus, I think there is an argument for updating the language, but it is not the one advanced by Sorrell in his introduction. (His updating works well, whatever the motivation, making the play much more graceful than Wood's straight translation.)

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