Friday, October 15, 2010

Notes on the Origins of French Literary Radicalism

During my first hour in the Hôpital X I had had a whole series of different and contradictory treatments, but this was misleading, for in general you got very little treatment at all, either good or bad, unless you were ill in some interesting and instructive way…. On the other hand if you had some disease with which the students wanted to familiarize themselves you got plenty of attention of a kind. I myself, with an exceptionally fine specimen of a bronchial rattle, sometimes had as many as a dozen students queuing up to listen to my chest. It was a very queer feeling — queer, I mean, because of their intense interest in learning their job, together with a seeming lack of any perception that the patients were human beings. It is strange to relate, but sometimes as some young student stepped forward to take his turn at manipulating you he would be actually tremulous with excitement, like a boy who has at last got his hands on some expensive piece of machinery. And then ear after ear — ears of young men, of girls, of negroes — pressed against your back, relays of fingers solemnly but clumsily tapping, and not from any one of them did you get a word of conversation or a look direct in your face. As a non-paying patient, in the uniform nightshirt, you were primarily a specimen, a thing I did not resent but could never quite get used to.
— George Orwell, “How the Poor Die”

I’m not sure what Zachary Bos has to do with “Republics of Letters,” the blog Dan Edelstein writes over at Stanford, but Zach recently included me in an email promoting Edelstein’s recent posts. In one of those posts Edelstein took up a position I usually endorse wholeheartedly — arguing that the idea of teaching literature as a national phenomenon is deeply flawed and limited. Edelstein’s got a point: I mean, teaching American Transcendentalism as if it were solely the product of American conditions (I’ve heard various codgers discuss Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in exactly these terms) has always seemed terribly blinkered to me. Certainly Emerson and Co. were just as much a late-blooming, provincial version of European Romanticism and German Idealist philosophy as they were the pure products of the American soil. Yet we persist in teaching French literature in the French department, and English lit in the English department where, generally speaking, it occupies a different wing of the curriculum than the American, postcolonial, and other Anglophone literatures. (One wonders if Edelstein’s solution — that English majors come over to the French department where he teaches for some courses — may be in some measure inspired by the frisson of fear running through language departments lately, a fear well justified by the recent philistine axing of all language departments other than Spanish at SUNY — Albany).

Anyway. While I generally endorse the position Edelstein has taken, I came across the piece at an unpropitious time. I read it over about an hour after getting off my commuter train, where my casual reading had been George Orwell’s
Decline of English Murder and Other Essays, which includes the powerful little essay “How the Poor Die,” an account of Orwell’s 1929 stay in a French hospital for paupers, where he’d sought refuge during a particularly nasty episode of bronchitis. The essay makes much of the differences between the way English and French hospitals of the time functioned, and in it Orwell argues that all the advantage lies on the English side. The nature of the institutional differences seemed to amount to a difference in the degree to which individual idiosyncrasy was respected. Orwell could be quite critical of English institutions, but here he notes a sort of fundamental English decency, compared to a French institution where treatments were doled out in a one-size-fits all manner, by a medical staff that treated patients as standard units to be processed by a standard procedure administered by certified experts whose job was to go through the procedures, not tend to the individual needs — hence the feeling, expressed in the quote above, of being a specimen, not a person. The sense of disempowerment at the hands of a rigid, regulation-ridden system administered by merciless functionaries starts even before one enters the hospital ward, and is, to Orwell’s mind, distinctly un-English: “The clerks put me through the usual third-degree at the reception desk,” he writes, “and indeed I was kept answering questions for some twenty minutes before they would let me in. If you have ever had to fill up forms in a Latin country you will know the kind of questions I mean.” (That the current hideous corporate fiasco we call the American medical system has become similar to this is worth discussion, but I’m headed in a different direction, and have had too much coffee to pause now).

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with the idea of national models for understanding literature? Well, this: while the idea of national literature is as full of holes as a rusted-out ‘67 Chevy truck fender, it does in some cases have merit. And this merit isn’t limited to the idea of a continuity of literary traditions within a nation (what Edelstein, giving due props to the idea he’s about to reject rejects, describes as the idea that “one must read Dante to understand Boccacio, Corneille to understand Racine”). No indeed. I mean, we can understand a great deal about a literary tradition by placing it in the context of the evolution of national institutions and cultural norms — norms of which I was reminded by Orwell’s piece.

In the case of French literature — and I’m speaking very fucking broadly here — I think we can only really understand the longstanding prominence of rebellious, experimental, and avant-garde literature with reference to two phenomena more prominent in French history than in the history of any other Western European nation: centralization and systematization. (Not that these are the only pertinent phenomena, but they’re big. Really big).

I suppose that if I had to live up to the standards of laying out a reasonably clear thesis to which I hold my students, I’d say my point is this: that much of the most canonical French literature since, say,
Les Fleurs du Mal has been produced by people who assume all or some of the following: that culture and consciousness and subjectivity are so thoroughly governed that one must deliberately reject all structures and institutions to be free and authentic. I’d add, too, that the scale of this oppressive sense of things being governed comes about because of France’s particular social and political history (I know I first arrived at this thesis during one of my two-hour phone conversations with the poet Michael Anania, but I don't know which of us came up with it — probably that hybrid creature Archambnia).

Perhaps I can be forgiven for going no further back than the seventeenth century in my attempt to Explain All This in a Single Blog Post. It was in that century that Louis the XIII (well, really Cardinal Richelieu) began a series of reforms aimed at creating, from the patchwork of feudal realms, something like a unified political unit that could be called France. The process bore fruit during the 72-year reign of Louis XIV, who succeeded in forging a powerful national unity by reducing the near-independent feudal lords of France to his powdered and bewigged house-monkeys, gambling and tittering in apartments of Versailles while royally-appointed officials governed their lands and the King and his advisors crafted truly national policies that dominated the continental political scene. The situation couldn’t have been more different than what occurred in England at the time, when the English Civil War, the Puritan Interregnum, and the Restoration of a chastened monarchy began a long process of devolving power away from centralized institutions (at the end of the period English financial reform, and the canny advantage aristocrats took of those reforms, led to a hybridizing of landed and financial elites utterly unlike anything that occurred in France, where centralized control of the aristocracy kept them much more separate from the bourgeoisie, with whose interests they eventually, and disastrously, clashed).

Anyway. We begin with French centralization — of politics, sure, but of other things as well. The black-hole level of gravity generated by the centralized court at Versailles meant that French institutional life, as well as art, letters, science, and much else became concentrated in the Versailles/Paris corridor. When the revolution came, it didn’t undo this centralization and return power to the provinces. Instead, the revolution meant the Englightenment-izing of centralized power: the rationalizing, encoding, systematizing, and standardizing of already centralized institutions. France became a highly regulated place under the revolution and, especially, under the Napoleonic regime, with its seemingly endless proliferation of petty officialdom, which was connected to the putting of the country on a long-term war footing, if I remember my lunch with the guys from the history department correctly. So you get highly regulated professions, standardized law, a continuation of the old, centralized royal way of administering art.

I’d offer, by way of an example of all this, the 1725 evolution of the old
Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture (which served Versaille) into the famous Salon de Paris, which morphed in the 1880s into a professional outfit (i.e., an organization policed by approved experts in the field), the Société des Artistes Français. First came royal centralization, then an increasingly administered, standardized, and professionalized institution, which produced the (now generally sneered at) academic painting against which so many of the artists we now revere rebelled (by exhibiting in the then-reviled Salon des Refusés).

We can already see in the
Salon des Refusés the spirit of rebellion against centralization and administration. There was, of course, a Royal Academy in England, but the painterly rebellions against it often took place within it (think of the Pre-Raphaelites, grubbing for R.A. wall-space and recognition while grumbling about the old guard). In this, as in so many other areas, English institutions tended to be less rigid, less theorized, and less powerful than their French counterparts. It takes (along with many other factors) a lot of constriction to produce an explosion like the one that occurred in French painting in the last decades of the nineteenth century. England — generally for better, but in this instance for worse — just didn’t have it, not to anything like the degree France did.

But we were going to talk about literature.

Okay, then. A few things that come to mind include:

— If you want to think about presciptivist poetics and the age of French absolutistism under Louis XIV, consider
L'Art Poétique, by Nicolas Boileau-Boileau-Despréaux. This was the big, prescriptive thesis about how one ought to write poetry in Louis XIV’s France. In fact, he wrote it shortly after the sun king summoned him to Versailles to be the example for other poets. It had authority, people, of the sort you can’t get without the endorsement of a powerful and centralized political center behind you. Try being prescriptive about poetry in America today and see how far it gets you.

— The great nineteenth-century French littérateur Hippolyte Taine’s observations on the difference between English and French poetry in the mid-nineteenth century in his big-ass Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise (four ponderous volumes, 1863-4). “The favorite poet of a nation, it seems, is he whose works a man, setting out on a journey, puts in his pocket,” opines Taine (in the van Laun translation). “Nowadays it would be Tennyson in England, and Alfred de Musset in France.” What’s significant about this? For Taine, it’s a matter of Tennyson being a poet of social consensus, and de Musset being a poet of rebellion against, and alienation from, a very different kind of society than that in which Tennyson found himself. “Does any poet suit [English, middle-class, capitalist] society better than Tennyson? Without being a pedant, he is moral; he may be read in the family circle by night; he does not rebel against society and life; he speaks of God and the soul, nobly, tenderly, without ecclesiastical prejudice… he has no violent or abrupt words, excessive and scandalous statements; he will pervert nobody.” Indeed, for Taine Tennyson’s poetry “seems made expressly for those wealthy, cultivated, free business men, heirs of the ancient nobility, new leaders of a new England. It is… an eloquent confirmation of their principles.” In contrast, Taine describes de Musset as writing in a country where all cultural life is centralized in the capital (in the French countryside “there are plenty of noblemen’s castles,” but “we do not find amongst them, as in England, the thinking elegant world,” which is exclusively in Paris). De Musset’s impetuous, sometimes scandalous, work, was loved by the alienated bohemians of Paris, shut out from the regulated professions. His “inner tempest of deep sensations” gave vent to their frustrations. Tennyson was a creature of his society; de Musset a rebel against his.

— Remember everything Walter Benjamin said about Baudelaire as an
apache, at war with the wilderness of his city? That’s rebel stuff, from a man living on the margins of society. Baudelaire is haunted by religion (and needs to reverse it with his Satanic gestures); Baudelaire flirts with right-wing and left-wing modes of rebellion, and yearns for a space “anywhere out of the world.” His is outsider-rebel stuff, a turning against respectability and order. Tennyson he is not.

— I don’t think it’s an accident that Naturalism — the literary movement most dedicated to showing us how our actions are determined by social and biological forces larger than we generally know — has its greatest theorist in Zola, and its most consistent achievements in the French novel. These are people operating in an environment where one feels the squeeze of such forces reinforced by the power of systematic, regulating institutions.

— Rimbaud. Rimbaud. Rimbaud. I mean, the desire for a systematic derangement of the senses comes from somewhere, right? If you read Rimbaud’s very early verse, you’ll see it’s all about the restrictiveness of life, of schools, or church, or small town life, of his father’s military discipline. The running-off to peddle guns in Africa is really of a piece with the poetic derangement: it’s a
Drunken Boat-like escape from rules, norms, and regulations.  I think the fact that so many in France felt a similar resentment of the governed nature of life accounts for his near-apotheosis in that country.  And for his popularity with young people everywhere (who tend to be subjected to power — until they get older and become both agents and objects of power, and drift from Rimbaud to The Wall Street Journal).

— André Breton’s Surrealism, with its identification of imaginative liberation and political liberation, shows us the urge to escape from social restrictions, and also the urge to escape from the restrictions of the alternative society proposed by the Communist Party. Watch him tapdance, in “Legitimate Defense,” trying to maintain the revolutionary stance of a party-line Communist
and the notion that the imagination can’t be bound to the regulations of the Party:

Here… is the essential question he [the local Party czar] puts to us: ‘Yes or no — is this desired revolution that of the mind a priori or that of the world of facts? Is it linked to Marxism, or to contemplative theories, to the purgation of the inner life?’ This question is of a much more subtle turn than it appears to be, though its chief malignity seems to me to reside in the opposition of an interior reality to the world of facts, an entirely artificial opposition which collapses at once upon scrutiny. In the realm of facts, as we see it, no ambiguity is possible: all of us seek to shift power from the hands of the bourgeoisie to those of the proletariat. Meanwhile, it is nonetheless necessary that the experiments of the inner life continue, and do so, of course, without external or even Marxist control.

Total revolution, revolution within the revolution, without end: this is the position of a man who has come to feel that the world is too governed, and the true and authentic life can only be found in the rejection of all institutions and all norms or forms or regulation.

— Jean Genet’s
Thief’s Journal — there’s a book where the only authentic people seem to be those who drop out of society utterly, the scavengers and beachcombers and lowlifes. When Genet imagines his mother as a detested beggar-woman, it’s a kind of abject-as-sublime moment: the outcast endures without (meaningless) status or (hypocritical) morals, and so becomes a figure for the one true fickering light of real humanity in the bogus and bullshitty world. Also, Genet likes showing us people in uniforms being corrupted — the revenge of the authentic outcast against the representatives of what is taken to be the falseness of an overly-policed society.

— I’m pretty sure we can see much of the formerly-fashionable French theory that so thrilled American grad students in the 80s and 90s in this light: Foucault analyses the invasive power of institutions; Kristeva dreams of a chaos bubbling up to disrupt language; Derrida seeks the contradictions of apparently regular systematic thought; Deleuze writes of “lines of flight” out of orderly thought (and of the superiority of Anglo-American literature, which he sees as less structured than France’s more philosophical literature).

Is that enough? Too much? Well, you get the idea. It’s not that other countries don’t have their of experimental, anomie-heavy writers, but there’s a particular preponderance in France, and I think that preponderance can be explained, in large measure, with reference to the combination of two phases of French history: the absolutist monarchy and the institutionalization of the Enlightenment in the wake of the revolution.

Someday I hope to get around to writing about the whys and wherefores of those moments when segments of the English and American literary worlds turn to the French tradition of anomie for inspiration (the English 1890s; the American academy of the late twentieth century). But it won’t be today. I have a train to catch, and some Orwell essays to read.


  1. Anonymous2:39 PM

    Interesting. And I think you are on to something. But I'd add some concepts that probably need to enter the discussion. Why does Britain have no lineage like that between Baudelaire and Blanchot? 1. France is mainly under the spell of republicanism. 2. France is, nonetheless, mainly Catholic. 3. France has a completely different education system. 4. In France the relations between the state and the market is very different. 5. France has a different class system in effect.

  2. Oh, I agree entirely that there are more factors at work than the two I point at. Absolutely.


  3. With all due respect, you're over-simplifying French history. The 19th century in France was a long pendulum swinging from despotism to democracy and back and forth several times. The modern French state really didn't form until the end of the century, and so much of what happened in literature is that of a country in perpetual turmoil. (Frankly, the country still is.)

    In many ways, French "literary radicalism" really isn't; it's attempts to come to terms with a changing society, with its sharp turns to the right and to the left. Les Misérables is probably the best example of this, inasmuch as it lays out much of the history of the first half of the century.

    I'm not an academic, and I would probably prefer that national literatures not be segregated, but there is a logic to it. While there are external influences - and the Transcendentalists are a good example - one has to admit that most of the influences on any form of national literature do come from within. While ignoring external influences is detrimental to understanding any literature, ignoring internal influences - under the guise of saying that you can't divorce a given "literature" from the rest of the world - is short-sighted. Granted, international influences are much stronger post WWII, but literature is still essentially the product of a culture.

  4. Hi Kirk,

    I agree that this post doesn't exactly constitute a subtle depiction of French society in the 19th century. And I take your point about the various political changes (Republican, Bonapartist, Monarchist, Communard, what have you). I do think, though, that there was a remarkable continuity, post-Napoleon, in the apparatus of administration, regardless of the changes at the top. In fact, a case could be made that the longstanding centralization of French political life helped make the rapidity of regime change possible -- one need only really seize control of the center to control the apparatus of the state. (I'm no expert, not by a long mile, but I did once co-teach a graduate seminar on the literature and philosophy of the era with a historian, and what I'm offering here is my hazy attempt at reconstructing his analysis).

    I agree about literature being the product of a culture. Of course I there's some question about how strongly the idea of culture corresponds with that of nation (and of course there are all kinds of asymmetries between what we think of as nations -- Australia is a very different sort of entity than Poland or Nepal, what with its immigrant population, multiculturalism, and relationship to a distant mother country). I mean, consider "English Lit" — much of the material one finds of syllabi and in textbooks comes from non-English sources (Burke, Wilde, Rushdie, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.S. Eliot), sources with different sorts of links to different non-English backgrounds and influences. I'm sure you're right about this increasing post-WW II.

    As for the division of literary study by nation -- I suppose any paradigm has it's limits, and as you've seen, I blow hot and cold on the issue.

    Best, and thanks for the thoughtful comments,


  5. Sorry! That last comment of mine had some typos and at least one really bad sentence -- I hope it's clear that I meant all that immigrant/mother country stuff in reference to Australia, not Nepal!


  6. I am reminded of the saying that when the French have a crisis, they go talk to a philosopher. No-one else in Euro-America does that. So there is some truth to what you're stipulating.

    I've often maintained that Rimbaud is to the rebelling adolescent male as Sylvia Plath is to troubled adolescent girls. In other words, a touchstone for feeling alienated, obscurely motivated by dark emotions, and rejecting of the control of parental and school institutions.

    There is a hint here, too, of the Nietzschean idea that society is ruled too much by Apollonian tendencies, and that Dionysian misrule must break through, periodically, in order to keep things healthy and evolving.

    There's something to Deleuze's theories that really breaks through the either/or dichotomies upon which a lot of this kind of theory is built, though. Something, to use his own words, rhizomatic.

  7. Yeah. Deleuze is the brightest of the bunch, and there's something very cool and generous about his attitude to how his work is used -- there's no such thing as misuse, there's only making something out of what you find. I'd like to spend more time with his work, but then again, I feel that way about a lot of things.


  8. "I am reminded of the saying that when the French have a crisis, they go talk to a philosopher. No-one else in Euro-America does that. So there is some truth to what you're stipulating."

    And you've heard that where? Because I've been living in France for 25 years, and I've never heard that...

  9. I haven't heard the phrase Art mentions either, but I do think I see the general point -- that philosophy has had a greater public presence in France than in many other countries.

    I'm sure there are better, more comprehensive, and up to date sources than this one, but here's an old article from the 80s about how Derrida came to be prominent in France, and how he came to be a big deal in American academe. The difference is telling -- he had a media presence in France, but a professional niche audience in the U.S.

    Of course a lot of intellectually inclined people in English-speaking countries romanticize/exaggerate these kinds of differences, but surely there's something to it.

    (Also, I intend to come to you for all of my Mac problems from here on out!).


  10. Well, I've been in France since 1984 (I'm a lapsed New Yorker), and I have to say, philosophers have pretty much zero presence in the media, with the exception of the faux philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi, who has been cultivating a skewed image of himself lately on the Huffington Post and in other US publications.

    Derrida never had a major presence in France, and, in fact, wasn't really taught. While the remains of his ideas are still polluting academia in the US, they are barely known in France.

    There was a time when the occasional philosopher would be interview on Bernard Pivot's great TV show Apostrophes, which has been off the air now for, what, 20 years now. (Ah, I do miss that show...) But the ratings for that show - even though it was in prime time - never got above a few percentage points.

    These days it's even less the case that any "intellectual" gets more than the occasional attention. One notable exception is Luc Ferry, who does a weekly news/commentary show on a cable news channel (LCI) opposite Jaques Julliard of the magazine Le Nouvel observateur. It's a sort of French crossfire, but the two of them tend to agree pretty often.

    Mac problems? I hope there aren't too many. :-)

  11. BHL! I nearly knocked him down by accident once when he was being interviewed by some people with a TV camera. It was near near the Pantheon in Paris, and I was rushing to a late dinner appointment and not looking where I was going. My Derrida encounter was in Chicago, down in Hyde Park, after I'd attended a lecture he gave. He was walking down the street with some fawning U of Chicago faculty, wearing an ankle-length cowboy style duster. I had had a couple of drinks, and was staring at his getup. "Did you have a question?" he asked, rightly assuming I had been in the audience. "Yes," I said, "where did you get that jacket?" He swept off, a look of haughty disdain on his face.



  12. The source was from Bernard-Henri Lévy, "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" (New York: Random House, 2006). Sorry I can't come up with the exact page off the top of my head. Among many other topics in his grand survey in the spirit of Tocqueville, Lévy comments pointedly at times about the deeply-embedded strain in American culture of anti-intellectualism, of the kind of populism that is suspicious of any kinds of deep thought and therefore becomes vulnerable to fearmongering and sloganeering. The saying speaks to the contrast between America and France, pointing out that in times of crisis the last person most Americans would turn to is a philosopher.

    On the other hand, it's just a saying. Don't take it so seriously.

  13. "In democratic times, the public often treats authors the way kings usually treat their courtiers; it enriches and despises them." This and Tocqueville's other comments on literature in Democracy in America, I think are rather compatible with what you write here.

    A corollary seems true, doesn't it? The unpopularity of an author is directly proportional to her poverty. Both features are probably signs of great skill and wisdom.

    Is this French literary business going to make its way into article or monograph form one of these days?

  14. Hi Zachary,

    I'm not sure about this going anywhere, really. The book I'm working on should have a section on English aesthetes and decadents, and they draw a lot of inspiration from the French, so there may be a section comparing and contrasting their motives for these sorts of writing and the rather different English motives. But right now I'm more excited about the chapter -after- that one, on Eliot and Yeats, and their ambivalence about being public figures.