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.