Friday, June 04, 2010

The Mysterious Imp of Chanteloup

Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, Marquise du Deffand; 1697-1780
Letter writer and salonnière
L'abbé me mande qu'on a pris à Chanteloup le diable dans un piège, qu'il est de la grandeur d'un chat, il a la peau d'un tigre, la queue d'un makis, le museau d'une fouine, qu'il pue à renverser; l'abbé l'a interrogé, et comme il n'a rien répondu, il conclut qu'il est un sot, et se confirme dans l'opinion qu'il a toujours eue, que le diable n'a pas l'esprit qu'on lui suppose.
From Lettre CLXXIV (Paris, le 30 octobre 1773)
Lettres de la Marquise Du Deffand à Horace Walpole, Vol. III (Paris: 1812) at Gallica


The abbé informs me that at Chanteloup the devil has been taken in a trap; that he has the size of a cat, the skin of a tiger, the tail of a lemur, and the muzzle of a stone-marten; and that he reeks fit to bowl one over. The abbé questioned him and, as he replied nothing, concluded him an idiot; and is confirmed in the opinion which he has always held, that the devil does not have the wit which is commonly supposed.


From the context of the letter it is evident that neither the abbé nor Mme. du Deffand took this fascinating episode seriously. So the deadpan satire with which she wrote of it elevates a depressing example of anachronistic superstition — hopefully the poor animal, possibly a skunk, wasn't maltreated — into a flight of shrewd whimsy.

The continuing relevance of the story itself is proven, for example, by the great time and thought which the North American media devote to the Montauk Monster and other mysterious foundling creatures. Every century appears to require its mythology.

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