Digital technology possesses the power to amplify quirks of human nature.
Consider the R.S.V.P. In the age of Facebook and paperless invitations, it is easy for hosts to issue a call to attend a birthday party, a Friday night cocktail gathering or a weekend hike in the Appalachians. And for the intended guests, it is just as easy and quick to respond, regardless of the actual intention to attend.
“Let’s call it the aspirational R.S.V.P.,” writes journalist Henry Alford, who authors the Circa Now column for the New York Times, “when someone replies yes to an invitation, even though he knows, or is fairly certain, that he can’t or won’t attend.”
While social media has made the non-committal commitment ubiquitous, Alford says it’s not a new dodge.
But as it turns out, aspirational reservations-making is not a new phenomenon. Jonathan Walsh, a professor of French studies at Wheaton College, said he is translating “Les Malheurs de l’amour,” a novel written by Madame de Tencin in 1747 but set in the early 1600s.
Professor Walsh explains that the book’s heroine, a member of bourgeois class, is courted by an aristocrat who manages his discomfort about pursuing a woman below his station by adding his name to a list of the young woman’s visitors and then not showing up.
The example came readily to mind when Alford asked for pre-Facebook examples of the behavior. The 18th century novel is one of two books by Claudine de Tencin that Walsh is working on translating. He expects that they will be published, probably next winter, by the University of Toronto Press.
“Although I don’t teach the novels in my course on French Enlightenment literature (there are so many authors to cover!), I do talk about Tencin’s role as host of an important salon and one of the few female novelists of her time. So the translation project has been helpful for that course.”