o be or not to be Molière: that is the latest
question wreaking havoc among French academics.
In "Corneille in the Shadow of Molière," a book recently
published in France, Dominique Labbé, a specialist in what is known
as lexical statistics, claims that he has solved a "fascinating
scientific enigma" by determining that all of Molière's masterpieces
— "Le Tartuffe", "Dom Juan," "Le Misanthrope," "L'Avare" — were in fact the work
of Pierre Corneille, the revered tragedian and acclaimed author of
"There is such a powerful convergence of clues that no doubt is
possible," Mr. Labbé said. The centerpiece of his supposed discovery
is that the vocabularies used in the greatest plays of Molière and
two comedies of Corneille bear an uncanny similarity. According to
Mr. Labbé, all these plays share 75 percent of their vocabulary, an
unusually high percentage.
Mr. Labbé's claim has upset more than the insular world of
scholars. In the French collective consciousness, Molière is
perceived as something of a national Shakespeare. Written in large
part for Louis XIV and his court, Molière's comedies instantly
became symbols of French culture thanks to their extraordinary
dramatic range and extensive popular and scholarly appeal. As Joan
Dejean, a professor of 17th-century French literature at the
University of Pennsylvania, explained, Mr. Labbé is trying to debunk
a national myth. "Molière is the so-called greatest author of the
French tradition, so there are significant stakes if you undermine
that," Ms. Dejean said.
Throughout the wickedly hot French summer, newspaper columnists,
television commentators and radio shows have been debating Mr.
Labbé's heretical claim.
Mr. Labbé isn't the first to call Molière's genius a masquerade.
Throughout the 20th century, a French poet named Pierre Louys and several amateur literati made similar allegations drawn
from lists of linguistic and biographic concurrences. In the wake of
these shaky exercises in literary sleuthing, Mr. Labbé contends he
has infallible statistical evidence of Corneille's "fingerprints"
all over Molière's greatest works.
As early as December 2001, Mr. Labbé published an article on the
topic in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, which he later
developed in "Corneille in the Shadow of Molière." His conclusions
are based on a statistical tool called "intertextual distance" and
developed by his son, Cyril Labbé, a teacher in applied mathematics
who claims to have tested the method on thousands of different
This method measures the overall difference in vocabulary between
two texts by determining the relative difference in the occurrence
of words. Thus, the lower the number, the more likely that the works
are from the same author.
And the Labbés concluded that — in 16 plays by Molière — the
lexical distance with two early comedies by Corneille is
sufficiently close to zero to prove that the texts are indeed
written by the same hand. They felt especially encouraged in their
conclusions by the fact that Molière and Corneille once collaborated
publicly on "Psyché," a "comédie-ballet" composed in 1671.
According to Mr. Labbé, the motive for a covert collaboration is
clear: Corneille wanted money and Molière fame. Immediately,
scholars of all stripes reacted vehemently, portraying Mr. Labbé as
a charlatan chasing an improbable literary scoop. And Mr. Labbé
himself defensively admitted: "I am mostly a statistician and barely
a literary critic at all. And I am certainly not a specialist of the
And that's the problem, said Georges Forestier, an authority at
the Sorbonne on 17th-century theater: "Statisticians like Labbé
think they have found the ultimate tool to determine authorship, and
they use it to aggrandize their position in the field." In his eyes,
a strictly scientific approach to authorship is dangerously
revisionist, because it omits the textual analysis. "Statistics,"
Mr. Forestier explained, "should be used only as an auxiliary to
complement literary analysis and historical data."
Indeed, at the heart of this debate lies a more fundamental
question about the use and abuse of scientific tools in the field of
letters. Jean-Marie Viprey, a researcher in lexical statistics and
literature at the University of Besançon in France, accuses Mr.
Labbé of using the veneer of statistical analysis and computer
sciences to fool laymen into taking a ludicrous conceit for a
groundbreaking discovery. Mr. Viprey takes apart the very principles
on which the Labbés have operated.