The other evening I saw a splendid production at Canadian Stage of one of the great plays of the French theatre: Tartuffe, by Molière. It was in an excellent modern English version and a staging that happily and effectively made the play as current to our eyes as it had been to the eyes of its original audience in 1664.
The titular character, Tartuffe, does not even appear until the third act, but his air precedes him (and not just because his acolyte swings a smoking censer over the stage during the scene break). He is some dark figure dug up by Orgon, the father of the household where the scene is set: an excessively pious man – dour, censorious, not a fun guy – who has grown parasitically on the heart and mind of Orgon, though obvious as a charlatan to nearly everyone else. I’ll spare you spoilers; all I’ve told you so far is detailed in the first five minutes of the play. And from this play, Tartuffe has become a synonym for hypocrite and charlatan, especially of the holy kind.
But Molière didn’t invent the name of the character out of thin air; he pulled it out of the soil, the fertile earth of French. It, and various other forms used at the time – artuffe, tartufe, tartufle, taltufle – are alternate versions of the word that in modern French is truffe and in modern English truffle, and they are related to Italian tartufo. All of them come from Latin tuber (or perhaps terræ tuber), which is ‘lump’ (or ‘lump of earth’) and you may recognize it as a term for a kind of root, such as a potato.
But of course a truffle is a different kind of thing than a potato. It is not truly a tuber of that type at all; truffles are fungi that grow below the ground. They are supposedly located by pigs, but today dogs are used, which is especially apposite because the wet tip of a dog’s finely tuned nose is also called in French a truffe because it looks so much like a black truffle.
Not that you need a finely tuned nose for truffles, at least not once they’ve been dug up. I have a jar of truffle salt and if I so much as open it you will soon know ten metres away. Not much is needed, which is a good thing, because truffles are quite pricey.
Well, those kinds of truffles are. We have some sale-priced boxes of the other kind of truffle on the counter: chocolates so named because they are dark lumps and are delicious. And of course there is also tartufo, the Italian ice-cream-ball dessert so named for the same reasons of resemblance.
But all those things are indulgences, part of the good life that Tartuffe condemned while himself indulging in it. I must say I don’t dig that outlook. I prefer to enjoy the little trifling pleasures of life… in moderation, of course, and honestly.