© Benoît Melançon, 2000
Texte absolument non définitif, non revu depuis mars 2000.
The Current State of Eighteenth-Century French Studies
Identifiant ORCID : orcid.org/0000-0003-3637-3135
Paper presented to the Eighteenth-Century Studies Group,
The title of my talk has already revealed to you that my perspective today will be overtly personal, even polemical at times. The arguments I intend to offer will rely on books and articles I’ve read recently as well as on anecdotal evidence. I will indeed use papers I have heard at conferences, dissertations I have assessed, grant applications I have reviewed, e-mail messages that have flashed across my screen—and, well, just plain gossip. Nonetheless, I do not think that relying on such material will turn my presentation into a solipsistic confession. In order to avoid that, I would like you to believe me when I say (1) that I’m not as thrilled as I would like to be when I reflect on the current state of eighteenth-century French studies, but that, in this case at least, I’m not the problem, and (2) that the causes of the problem are to be found within the discipline itself. In trying to find those causes I will have to define for you what is, to my mind, thrilling work, and where I expect it to come from.
Looking at recent publications, one could easily argue that eighteenth-century studies are at a crossroads. Indeed, at least two recent books and one issue of a scholarly journal have decided to take stock of the situation in our field. In 1998, Dix-huitième siècle devoted its thirtieth issue to "La recherche aujourd’hui." The same year Alberto Postigliola edited a volume offering an international panorama of research on the eighteenth century. Also in 1998, Michel Delon and Jochen Schlobach inaugurated the new "International Eighteenth-Century Studies" series with a book called Eighteenth-Century Research. Objects, Methods and Institutions (1945-1995). I will not try to summarize the fifty-two papers gathered in these publications: they amount to 681 pages! In fact, I’m more interested by the publication year of these overviews than by their actual content. The millennium notwithstanding, why this sudden urge to count heads? I would suggest that this urge is but a sign of a larger concern with the work we try to do, in francophone eighteenth-century studies. In other words, we are taking stock because things are perhaps not what they should be. (Of course, taking stock is precisely what I’m doing right now...)
A second sign of that urge to take stock would be the number of dictionaries and related projects recently out or currently in the works. Michel Delon has edited a twelve-hundred page Dictionnaire européen des Lumières and he is currently co-editing an Histoire de la France littéraire in three volumes. Jean Goulemot has worked with André Magnan and Didier Masseau on the Inventaire Voltaire, then with Didier Masseau and Jean-Jacques Tatin-Gourier on a Vocabulaire des Lumières. The publishing house Honoré Champion has just released a Dictionnaire de Diderot, in the wake of its own Dictionnaire de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while Hachette has its Dictionnaire Voltaire and Complexe its Dictionnaire de la pensée de Voltaire. This category also features the useless, yet very long, Histoire et dictionnaire du temps des Lumières. 1715-1789 (Robert Laffont). This editorial tendency speaks volumes about the apparent necessity felt nowadays to gather pieces of information as if it were an end in itself.
On a different level, cause for concern may be found in discussions—either formal or informal—about works one needs to read these days in our discipline. When you ask around for titles that have really raised important issues over the last few years, you find two types of answers. One type of answer suggests that the milestones are books by scholars who have been in the field for a long time. Recent examples would be books by Jacques Proust on the relationship between Europe and Japan, by Jean Starobinski on the odd couple constituted by the words action and réaction, or by Jean Goulemot on pornography. These scholars have influenced generations of scholars; that they keep publishing well beyond retirement comes as no surprise. What comes as a surprise, however, is the absence of books by younger scholars that could also be hailed as milestones, or milestones-to-be. I have not found anything in preparing this talk that resembles even remotely the foreword to Pierre-Henri Castel’s first book, La Querelle de l’hystérie. La formation du discours psychopathologique en France (1881-1913), published in 1998 by the Presses universitaires de France. In it, Guy Semama writes:
I would argue that such statements—if indeed they could be found in regard to eighteenth-century French studies—would be few and far between these days because of a general lack of regeneration. I do not wish to equate youth with innovation—as the rest of my talk will amply show—but I’m still left wondering about the conceptual timidity of certain young scholars in eighteenth-century French studies.
The other answer to the question "What are the most important books these days in eighteenth-century scholarship?" would be "Look outside of literary studies." Indeed, among the most often quoted writers, you would find a score of historians. Names that pop to mind are Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Arlette Farge or Lynn Hunt. One of the most important transformations in literary studies over the last thirty years or so, in my view, is the new place reading practices have been given, and for this we all owe a great deal to Roger Chartier. I have serious reservations about Darnton’s work when it comes to textual analysis, but I absolutely need it—as the work of an historian—in my own research on marginal writers during the Siècle des lumières. Arlette Farge’s archival discoveries raise substantial issues about popular culture under the Ancien Régime. Lynn Hunt, lastly, is one of the very few American historians translated in French, and she has been much discussed. All these names are well known, and have been for some time. Such is not the case with another historian, Michel Porret. Based in Geneva, he specializes in the stories historians and witnesses alike tell when faced with crime, suicide or censorship. He breaks new grounds in a most convincing way. As you can see, I do think that literary scholars have things to learn from colleagues in different disciplines. Still, I remain puzzled by the fact that historians—to stick with my examples—seem to attract more attention within literary circles than literary scholars per se, or at least scholars from a younger generation.
I shall now return to my initial statement, and ask myself: "What is exciting work? Where does it come from?" Before suggesting potential avenues of investigation that may prove fruitful, I feel that I must give you examples of what I consider to be thrilling work, so you understand my position more clearly. I will present two books that seem exceptional to me each in a different way, then reflect on one particular field in which thrills seem forbidden.
In 1998, Larry Bongie published A Biographical Essay on Sade. According to Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books, Bongie’s study qualifies as a "negative biography." Indeed, the author’s approach lacks in empathy, and does so quite emphatically. Bongie doesn’t like Sade the man, and not much Sade the writer, except when he is writing letters: "A more likely development in Sade’s future literary fortunes might involve increased recognition that it is really the marquis’ correspondence—most notably his prison letters—that deserves to be honored as great literature and accorded some measure of the praise that has been lavished almost superstitiously on his novels." What is striking about this book is not so much its author’s contempt for Sade—although it is quite striking—but the fact that it comes so late in Sadean studies, and not from a younger scholar. At the risk of being accused of ageism once again, I must say that I would have expected such a biography to come from a young Turk, more than from a professor emeritus of French at the University of British Columbia. Why is this?
The main reason is that Bongie does in this biography what is expected from someone entering the intellectual field: he’s not afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. (I’m not sure this is the best metaphor to use when speaking of Sade.) Three brief anecdotes will illustrate my point. Last October Montréal was host to the XXVth Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. During our meeting, one paper dealt with three of Sade’s numerous biographies, one of them Bongie’s. It was given by a young scholar: she’s presently writing her dissertation on Sade. In her presentation she mentioned that she did not recognize "our Sade"—"notre Sade"—in Bongie’s book. I find this admission significant in many ways. It shows, first, that scholars who work on Sade seem to form a tightly-knit society, if not a church of sorts. Second, it also reveals that there is a dominant discourse on Sade, and that one should respect that discourse in order to be welcomed to this exclusive group. My second anecdote bears some resemblance to the first, although it does not concern Bongie’s biography, but Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. This book attracted two outraged e-mail messages on the SECFS-L Internet discussion group, from one Sade specialist. Once again, an acolyte felt that he had to protect "his Sade." Lastly, I’d like you to ponder all the implications of a Website called www.realsade.com. How many false Sades are there? (Alluding to another Sade website he was then trying to set up, Tony Saroop, webmaster of www.realsade.com, wrote in an e-mail dated December 25, 1999: "I have, as it were, erected the temple; it is now up to Members to furnish it with learning....") In this case, it seems to me, not only are these scholars obsessed by Sade, but they often appear to be busy studying just this one and only author—and this marks an important problem in francophone scholarship in general.
If I were to review Bongie’s book systematically, I would probably have to admit that I disagree with him on a number of points. It is not that I am a big Sade fan, nor that I consider myself a disciple; rather, our differences stem from the fact that I place less emphasis than Bongie does on biography when I deal with literary texts. But whether or not I agree with Bongie’s conception of literature and literary studies is not at issue here; what I want to address, is the freedom of the scholar. In his devastating book, Larry Bongie shows more of that freedom than most of Sade’s aficionados. For example, he defends Sade’s "much maligned mother-in-law", the one character that Sade’s scholars usually loathe unanimously. He is not content with the orthodoxies that surround Sade’s works and persona, nor with some recent trends in literary studies, and he doesn’t try to be nice about it: "A major premise—at one time viewed as commonsensical and self-evident but nowadays condemned in some critical circles as lamentably unschooled—underlies my basic approach to the subject, namely, the assumption that there is a person behind the text and that it is both legitimate and useful to seek a linkage between an author’s life and writings." Such an "assumption" may lead—and has actually often led—to a boring read, not to mention trivial psychological explanations; this is not the case with Bongie. On the one hand, he constantly reminds his reader that his interpretation, erudite as it is, is nonetheless "speculative," thus showing how personal his take on Sade is. On the other, he is inspired by his subject matter, however horrified he is at times: witness this portrait.
"Why, then, write about him?" one may ask. Because this is what scholars do: they try to understand—in this case, to understand the literary imagination by understanding the man, and to understand also his unquestioned reputation, at least within dix-huitiémistes’ official circles. In order to do so, one has to refuse to follow the followers. How ironic: the one writer that does follow Sade’s cry for liberty doesn’t like him!
I would like now to turn my attention to a totally different book, this one by Élisabeth Bourguinat and called Le Siècle du persiflage. 1734-1789. It was published the same year as Bongie’s biography, but it seems to be an endeavour of a very different nature. Bourguinat’s aim is to understand why the word persiflage came to stand for the Lumières as a whole. One may disagree with this claim—as I would, actually—but not with Bourguinat’s methodology and wit.
How does she proceed? She first contends that the common etymology of persiflage and all related words—persifler, persifleur—is not convincing. Lexicographers have always claimed that persifler stems from the prefix per- and the verb siffler. The problem with this etymology is that it can’t explain how one of the two f-’s in siffler disappeared from persifler. Confronted with that problem, Bourguinat decides to test another hypothesis. What if persiflage was derived from a family name, as marivaudage came from Marivaux or lambertinage from Lambert? She then looks for a family name that may have led to persiflage—and—guess what—she finds it! That name is Persiflès; it is the name of a character in a theatrical amphigouri—a short parodic play. All is well, then: Bourguinat put forward an hypothesis and she tested it successfully. But not so fast. She did find the character she was looking for, but in a work dated from the early 1740s. Since the first occurrence of persiflage dates from 1734, the amphigouri is an interesting lead, but not the definitive proof Bourguinat hoped to find.
How the hypothesis was conceived and tested is outlined in the book’s introduction and first chapter. In the next three chapters, Bourguinat’s approach seems more conventional. She divides the period she studies into three sub-periods, each of which is based on the changing definitions of persiflage: after the persiflage des petits-maîtres comes that of the roués and then of the philosophes. The last chapter is devoted to the French Revolution. Bourguinat suggests that persiflage lost its prestige at that time, and she tries to understand why. To find as many occurrences of persiflage and related words as she could, Bourguinat read dozens of books—literary and otherwise—and she also used computer tools, namely the Trésor de la langue française database. (There are two versions of this database, one in France at the Institut national de la langue française, one in North America at the University of Chicago.)
Then comes the conclusion. Bourguinat sets out to turn her own argument on its head. She had demonstrated earlier that it was plausible to establish a link between persiflage and Persiflès. Now she shows that if persiflage caught on so well as a new word, it was precisely because it seemed to come from per- and siffler! The common etymology could not really explain where the word came from, but it could explain why it spread so fast. Bourguinat went as far as she could with her "scénario hypothétique," but no further. The fact that Bourguinat chooses to close her work with this admission is significant. Instead of showing off with her brand new reading, she prudently underlines the limits of that reading.
There are many lessons I think we should learn—or simply meditate on—from Élisabeth Bourguinat’s book. The first is similar to what I have to tried to stress in Bongie’s book: to break ground, a literary critic has to go against the grain. You have been told since Apollinaire that Sade was the "freest spirit that ever lived"? Don’t believe it. All dictionaries say that persifler comes from siffler? Challenge them. The second lesson is that in order to go against the grain one has to find a strong hypothesis to put against the earlier so-called truths. This is a lesson very seldom heard, at least in the francophone world. As a teacher, this is a problem I face almost every time I discuss a master’s thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation with students. No one has ever told them that this is the way science works: you put forward an hypothesis, then you test it. I fully acknowledge the fact that I may seem to stretch the point here, for literary studies are not to be confused with "hard" sciences. Still, I do think that what students should learn to do, especially in graduate school, is to organize and defend their thoughts in the most solid of ways. I really don’t think that they do. (You may wonder about what students do if they don’t start with a clear hypothesis and build on it. Well, often they are content with descriptive research or, worse, with discussions of the literary merits of their subject-matter. This usually takes the form of the following argument: this work is good/beautiful/rich—hence literary.) A third lesson from Bourguinat’s book—as well as a counterpoint to what I just stated—is the fact that you can present a strong, well-organized and still be witty as hell. In other words, you can use a very solid methodology and still be a clever writer; you don’t have to forego one in favor of the other. The last lesson from Bourguinat’s book is a sad one. Last year I published a review of her book in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. The magazine sent it to Bourguinat who wrote back a thank-you note in which she told me that she was happy with my review but that, in a sense, it came to late: she had just decided to switch careers, for she couldn’t get a job within the French university system. In a country still obsessed with the twelve-hundred page doctorat d’État, her book just seemed too light. (One may object to that that there may be other reasons why Élisabeth Bourguinat did not succeed in any of the job competitions she entered, and this is obviously true. Nonetheless, I would still argue that the type of book Bourguinat decided to make out of her doctoral thesis is not what is expected from a young scholar in France today. It is short—she trimmed her dissertation from six hundred plus pages to two hundred and thirty. It challenges orthodoxies. It uses new tools. It is a good read. This different kind of scholarship is disdained by some, for example Laurent Versini in his disparaging remarks in his review of the book for Romanische Forschungen.)
Such resistance to new scholarship is not that infrequent in the francophone world—whether or not it comes from young scholars; hence the forbidden thrill I announced earlier. For the last fourteen years or so I have devoted a great deal of my time to the study of letter writing: I wrote my dissertation on Diderot’s letters, and I have been working on various correspondences ever since. Two or three years ago I started to tell colleagues that I would stop studying epistolarity shortly, to confront new questions and because I felt that there was very little interesting work done in that field. I was stunned to realize that most did not believe me! (Had I told them that I did not want to keep on working on Diderot—which is also the case—I would have been faced with the same skepticism.) How could anyone change allegiances like that? How could I judge so harshly the work of colleagues and friends? Sad as it may be, it is nonetheless true: the letter genre flourishes on the bookshelves, but critical thinking on epistolarity does not. Publishers always find new correspondences to sell, and people to present them and write about them—but these people are not willing to treat letters as they would other texts. Open most critical studies in French about correspondences, and you will be swamped by comments on the letter writer’s so-called sincerity, by judgments on the letter’s beauty, or lack of it, by specious distinctions between literary and non-literary letters, or between épistolier and auteur épistolaire. If one chooses to write about the novel, or poetry, or drama, one would never do so without some critical reflection on the genre and the problems its reading raises. Simple questions like: how is the narrator constructed? What is the rhetoric of the era in which a specific work is written? Are there any particular constraints at that time? That a lay reader doesn’t feel especially concerned by such questions is predictable, but I would expect specialists of textual analysis to be more careful. In epistolarity studies, numerous scholars not only are not careful but resent being told that they should be. I may seem excessively critical in describing these studies, but that is probably due to the fact that I feel some important pieces of work did not leave the imprint they should have, for example Janet Altman’s Epistolarity or Vincent Kaufmann’s L’Équivoque épistolaire.
If not from epistolarity studies, where will the thrilling new works come from? Where are we to look in order to find solace? If Bill Gates can write that "Starting with the French Revolution until Napoleon died is a great period", we must not disappoint him; we have to provide him with interesting readings of that "great period," and prior ones. There are more and more books from the eighteenth century in print. Alongside editions for students one now finds all kinds of publications, and they come from small presses—Éditions Desjonquères, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne—as well as from bigger outfits—Honoré Champion has published at least forty critical studies over the last three years. There are surely readers for all this. How can we keep them interested in what is going on?
One field to look at is computer-assisted literary studies, or littératique, to borrow a word created by one of my colleagues at the Université de Montréal. In eighteenth-century French studies, scholars have been using computers for more than thirty-five years, and there are lessons to be learned from them. Let me indicate just one direction we may take here. I mentioned earlier that one of the major shifts in recent eighteenth-century studies came from historians of reading practices; in this particular field I think that the Internet revolution will force us to think anew our relation to the printed page—this is obvious—as well as that of readers of periods gone by—which may be less obvious. In order to do so, we will have to reflect on so-called linear reading. In his very stimulating The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age Sven Birkerts asserts that we have entered a new world of reading, the "lateral age", that we have left—or are leaving—the age of "vertical consciousness." Birkerts’ approach has been challenged convincingly in The Atlantic Monthly by Wen Stephenson. In his review of The Gutenberg Elegies Stephenson shows how Birkerts’ conception of reading is implicitly based on the reading of novels, while it doesn’t take into account the reading practices of other genres, namely the reading of poetry. Although he only alludes very briefly to Birkerts’ essay, Christian Vandendorpe in his Du papyrus à l’hypertexte. Essai sur les mutations du texte et de la lecture clearly demonstrates that linear reading is precisely what the book as a reading machine has been trying to avoid since the invention of the codex.
These three writers—Birkerts, Stephenson, Vandendorpe—are faced with similar questions: how do we read today? how did we read before? how will we read tomorrow? You may ask how this relates to my paper. Well it does, in that the new tools provided us by computers can challenge our ways of reading canonical works as well as the canonical discourse on how these works were read. A case in point is that of the Encyclopédie. Thanks to Robert Darnton, Jacques Proust, John Lough, Frank Kafker and Madeleine Pinault, we know today at lot more than before about the people who worked under Diderot and D’Alembert, about the prints assembled in the last eleven volumes—out of twenty-eight—, and about how this project related to previous encyclopedias. There is still lots to learn, but the groundwork is laid for the task ahead. Such is not the case with the readers of the Encyclopédie. Who were they? How did they read such a massive work, published over a period of twenty-one years? The computer cannot help us answer the first question—Who were these readers?—but it may prove useful in putting forward new hypotheses to answer the second one—How did they read? Take the issue of the cross-references—the renvois—between articles. Ever since the eighteenth century it has been said that there was a system beneath these cross-references, and, furthermore, that it was through that system that the Encyclopédie was a subversive work. Well, as Hans-Wolfgang Schneiders has already shown by studying the cross-references related to morale, no such system ever existed. In this case, Schneider’s argument was formulated before computers were commonplace, and well before the full text of the Encyclopédie was computerized. But now it is, and available from the ARTFL server in Chicago, as well as on cd. Schneiders’ hypothesis can now be tested on all the Encyclopédie’s text—not only on articles about morale—and new hypotheses may result from this testing. One question now facing the Encyclopédie scholar would thus be: "What was the actual role of the renvois if they were not linked through a system? What purpose did they serve?" Now that the full text of the Encyclopédie has been put on line, scholars may attempt to shed new light on this problem. Another question which interests me is "Who benefited from the myth that the renvois were subversive?"—but that is a quite different question.
There are numerous other ways in which computers may change our work. Internet discussion groups create what one may call collective knowledge databases of a new type. Literary genres are modified by the Internet and cds; to take but just one example, what happens to epistolary novels in the age of e-mail? Textual analysis may benefit from the use of statistical software. It is also true of the study of the novel, as shown by the collective project of the SATOR (Société d’analyse de la topique romanesque avant 1800); its purpose is to gather a series of topoï from novels published in French, or translated into French, before 1800, and to see how they were combined at different points in time. SATOR’s project was conceived without computers in mind—which explains some of its conceptual limitations—, but it adapted rapidly to the computer boom of the 1990s. SATOR researchers now communicate through e-mail, and the topoï database they are preparing is available on the Net, out of the University of Toronto. Not all research conducted in these various fields is equally convincing, but I don’t see how literary scholars can pretend it doesn’t exist anymore. Still many do, singing that old mantra "It’s not the tools that matter, but the questions one asks." The problem is that this mantra was already sung in the mid-sixties, when the computer was first used in literary studies. I think it’s time to snap out of it.
A second place to look for stimulating work is the study of so-called minor authors. It is a field full of land mines, but this field could also have a lot to offer. One of these land mines is the need too often felt to rehabilitate the minor author one has chosen to study. It is as if one could not study an author without finding him or her great, and worthy of praise. I would argue, personally, that this attitude has been a plague, at least in the French world, within the field of women’s studies. Although it could be understandable why it was necessary at one time to stress the importance of women writers of lesser fame and to question the ideology that marginalizes them, I still think that Diderot is a far more interesting writer than Olympe de Gouges. I have studied a few minor authors myself, and I’d like to put it bluntly: there are reasons why they are minor. Nonetheless I will keep studying them, for they are interesting subjects of investigation. One of those minor authors I’ve done work on is Jean-Marie Chassaignon, author of the Cataractes de l’imagination, déluge de la scribomanie, vomissement littéraire, hémorrhagie encyclopédique, monstre des monstres. Par Épiménide l’Inspiré, a set of four volumes published in 1779. In my reading of that very strange collage I have tried to show how it raises crucial issues about the status of what came to be known as literature at the end of the Ancien Régime. I agree with the very few scholars who have perused his work so far: Chassaignon was probably crazy—but I don’t worry much about that. What I want to do is twofold. On the one hand, I’d like to study Chassaignon without having to defend myself for taking such a weird author as a subject. On the other, I do not want to become the Chassaignon scholar in the world; my interest in him is part of a larger reflection, not an end to itself.
To stick with marginal authors, I’d suggest one other way to renew our understanding of the eighteenth century. French literary scholars have always been obsessed with the figure of the philosophe. Under that broad heading, they have tried to group together thinkers as different as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. The premise that underlies that conflation is that there is such a thing as a unity of the Lumières. For quite a number of years, though, some scholars, Jean Marie Goulemot prominent among them, have stressed the fact that such a unity doesn’t exist, and that to postulate it leads to the exclusion of a number of writers—thus to a misunderstanding of what the Lumières may actually have been like. To illustrate this, one can search the textbooks on French literature of the eighteenth century for what they have to say about the salon, that supposedly fundamental institution of Ancien Régime culture. One would then be hard-pressed to find any salon that wasn’t dominated by the philosophes’ principles. There is never even one single example of a salon that defended values different from these defended by the so-called mainstream philosophes. Obviously, there is a major flaw in this characterization: how could it be that the philosophes gathered in salons, while the antiphilosophes—to use a practical, yet inaccurate, word—met elsewhere? If the salon is indeed the foundation of eighteenth-century sociabilité—and I can indeed live with such a statement—then it must be so across the board, so to speak. Textbooks as well as scholarly works should then present the antiphilosophes’ salons; and they don’t. Much work is still needed if we are to understand both salon life, and the relationship between philosophes and what Darrin M. McMahon has studied recently in a long article titled "The Counter-Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France." On this particular subject much is expected also from Didier Masseau who is currently writing a book on antiphilosophie, after his book of 1994 on L’Invention de l’intellectuel dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle. Honoré Champion released in 1999 a new edition of Jean-Jacques Rutlidge’s play of 1776 Le Bureau d’esprit, and one hopes that it leads to critical work on that play. In fact, Rutlidge’s play is of great interest to scholars studying both the salon and antiphilosophie, for it mocks Madame Geoffrin’s salon while defending values traditionally associated with the philosophes, for example the need for a new theatre inspired by Shakespeare. In this long forgotten play by a minor writer usually classified as an antiphilosophe, philosophie and antiphilosophie are intertwined in a way very seldom seen on the French stage. This is not to say that Rutlidge is a genius unjustly put aside by literary history, but to admit that such a character precisely raises the questions of what the Enlightenment is in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Rutlidge, as such, must be read, if only to remind us how arbitrary our definitions and categories are. (As a parenthesis I may add that most of the work on the salon is done these days by historians: Dena Goodman, Darrin M. McMahon, or Jolanta Pekacz.)
A few weeks ago, a lengthy discussion took place on the C18-L discussion group on Horace Walpole’s sexuality, and it soon expanded into a discussion of the merits of queer theory. One of the messages I then received is of particular interest with regard to differences between anglo-saxon and francophone studies when it comes to the status of theory. The message read:
I don’t want to discuss the truth or falseness of this statement: I am not familiar enough with eighteenth-century English studies to be able to do so. Nonetheless, I would like to say that such a statement does not describe the current state of studies in French about the eighteenth century at all. Queer theory is simply not an issue in these studies. The same could be said of gender studies—up to a point—or of cultural studies. It is not so much that these approaches are not represented at all in French studies, but that they are marginal—as are, I would argue, almost all theoretical reflections, unless erudition itself is a theory.
A bit of anecdotal evidence may exemplify this. Two years ago, I organized a small conference on marginalized authors from the eighteenth and nineteenth century with a French colleague. Some of the speakers could be labeled theorists, in the sense that they defined themselves first as "sociocritiques," then eighteenth- or nineteenth-century scholars. The rest of the speakers, on the other hand, were clearly more period-oriented than theory-oriented. The divide between the two groups was tangible, and both camps kept to their positions. Discussions were not very good, because of some kind of mutual incomprehension. I don’t want to pile up signs of that incomprehension, but anyone who has attended conferences in French and conferences in English will understand what I mean. The simple comparison of paper titles is telling: you will very rarely see in French titles such as Ray Stephanson’s delightful "The Symbolic Structure of Eighteenth-Century Creativity: Pregnant Men, Brain-Wombs, and Female Muses (With Some Comments on Pope’s Dunciad)." You find in this title a pointer to the conceptual tools Ray will use, while it also indicates that he will deal with a canonical text. (Let me stress that Ray’s article is good for other reasons than just its title.)
What I’m aiming at is that, apart from the use of computers and the study of marginalized authors, stimulating work could also come from the contact with theory—either older or newer ones. Please allow me to oversimplify once more, and to throw a few rhetorical questions at scholars of all breeds. Why is it that a paper on the poetics of the familiar letter in our period is greeted in France with the comment "How interesting, but we’re just erudites around here"? Do we really have to believe that any technical vocabulary is a threat to close reading per se? How legitimate is a work of literary criticism today without any theoretical reflection? As a literary scholar, I do not want to be forced into any corner: theory-bashing is as useless as theory-worshipping. What we should be looking for are new questions, whether they come from queer theory, gender studies or cultural studies, to take approaches largely foreign to French studies of the eighteenth century. We may disagree with the answers these disciplines, or others, provide us, but at least they would expand our collective intellectual horizon.
I would like to conclude with two final remarks.
My first one has to do with the causes of the present situation. How can we explain the current state of eighteenth-century French studies? Of course there is more than one answer to this question. The situation in France may be explained in part by the structure of the university system, and its emphasis on the huge doctorat d’État, by the problems raised by interdisciplinarity, and by the hiring process of University professors. Michel Delon addressed members of the XXVth Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies last October in Montréal, and he raised the question of French dissertations after his paper called "Les Lumières sont-elles (encore) utiles?" He then mentioned how the French university system forces students to over specialize: until recently, to receive scholarly recognition, you had to write a multi-volume thèse d’État, making you the ultimate specialist of the question you studied; now that the doctorat d’État has been abolished and replaced by a doctorat nouveau régime, the former is mused on with nostalgia by students who were exempted from writing one, as if their own "short" dissertations were not specialized enough! Not only does this explain why French scholars tended to spend most of their careers in one specific field—be it a writer, a genre or a theme—, but also why their books came out so late in their careers, and why these scholars were and still are often skeptical when reading American or Canadian dissertations: they are just not doctorats d’État. Now that there is a new type of dissertation in place, things may change, but certainly not overnight. Reluctance to switch topics during one’s career may be natural among scholars, but it is stronger in France.
Another sign of that over specialization is to be found, but on a different level, in what Donald Kennedy, in his book Academic Duty, calls "disciplinary packages."
If interdisciplinarity is difficult to achieve in the US, it seems to be even more so in France. For someone interested in poking through disciplinary windows, this is a real structural problem. Everybody praises Chartier, Darnton, and the likes, but the anxiety level raises drastically when the time comes to reevaluate one’s own work in the light of theirs.
According to Jean-Fabien Spitz, who theaches philosophy at the Université de Caen in Normandy, intellectual conservatism in France is also caused largely by the hiring process of University professors. Spitz just published a vitriolic essay in the latest issue of Le Débat called "Les trois misères de l’universitaire ordinaire" ("The Three `Miseries’ of an Ordinary University Professor"). These three "misères" are material, intellectual, and moral. While discussing the material situation in French academia, Spitz describes what he feels is the usual hiring process of a professor. Student B chooses his dissertation topic so to please Professor A, for he knows that Professor A may help him later on in his career. Intellectually as well as personally, Student B is indebted to Professor A, even more so when Professor A actually pulls strings and helps him in his career. For a while, Student B, now Professor B, has to pay back Professor A for his efforts. Then, he becomes Professor A. There goes innovation.
When I read this paper in Calgary, a colleague in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish asked me if I could think of more specific reasons to explain the situation. His argument was the following: the three things I just described could apply to any type of literary studies in France—not just to eighteenth-century studies. The question was good, and dangerous. Good—because it does indeed force me to be more specific. Dangerous—because if I am not more specific, then all literary studies in France are at risk. The only answer I had—and still have—is that politics played a major role in the burgeoning of eighteenth-century French studies during the 1960s and 1970s, and that, in this regard, things have changed drastically over the last twenty years. To put it in a nutshell: there seemed then to be a rather direct link between the politics of the time and the politics of the eighteenth century. Marxism flourished on that turf. This is not the case anymore. This may be a part of the answer to the question I was asked; obviously, that aspect of my paper still needs fine-tuning.
As for Canada and the US, the causes of the present situation are different. It is quite obvious that the American scholars rely more on theory than do European or Canadian scholars, and that has to be explained by the state of literary studies in the United States as a whole. In Canada, more specifically, if one is to judge by publications, conference programmes, and recent dissertations, the research is very rarely theory-oriented, and it does suffer from that, among other things. I am not preaching for the teaching of literature based solely on theory—quite the contrary—but I also think that theoretical problems are often overlooked in recent work. Larry Bongie’s book is obviously not theory-oriented, but he nonetheless posits himself within contemporary discussions about literary studies. Élisabeth Bourguinat is in a similar situation: theory is not her main concern, but that does not mean that she is oblivious to theoretical or methodological interrogations. This is what I think we should ask from every new piece of work: a clear and informed statement about where one stands.
My second, and final, remark—it will be shorter and less polemical—has to do with what one is to expect from literary studies in general. If you were to object that literary criticism does not necessarily have to thrill its reader, you would be right, of course. As a critic, instead of trying to thrill your readers, you may wish to simply inform them, or convince them, or please them. All these goals are absolutely legitimate—but they don’t always make for an exciting read, and excitement is important in literary criticism. The lack of excitement forces those who believe that criticism still has a value today to reflect not only on the discipline’s status but also on their own practice.
I would like to thank Larry Bongie and Susan Dalton who read a first draft of this paper.
. Dix-huitième siècle, 30, 1998, p. 5-306. Ed. by Michel Delon.
. Alberto Postigliola (ed.), La ricerca sul XVIII secolo. Un panorama internazionale, Rome, Société internationale d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, Socièta italiana di studi sul secolo XVIII, Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, Istituto Universitario Orientale, Dipartimento do Filosofia e Politica, "Materiali della Socièta italiana di studi sul secolo XVIII," 1998, 149 p.
. Michel Delon and Jochen Schlobach (ed.), La Recherche dix-huitiémiste. Objets, méthodes et institutions (1945-1995). Eighteenth-Century Research. Objects, Methods and Institutions (1945-1995), Paris, Honoré Champion, "Études internationales sur le dix-huitième siècle/International Eighteenth-Century Studies," 1, 1998, 231 p.
. Jacques Proust, L’Europe au prisme du Japon, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Entre humanisme, contre-Réforme et Lumières, Paris, Albin Michel, "Bibliothèque Albin Michel Histoire," 1997, 320 p. Ill.; Jean Starobinski, Action et réaction. Vie et aventures d’un couple, Paris, Seuil, "La librairie du XXe siècle," 1999, 450 p.; Jean M. Goulemot, Ces livres qu’on ne lit que d’une main. Lecture et lecteurs de livres pornographiques au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Minerve, 1994 (deuxième édition revue, augmentée et corrigée), 182 p. Ill.
. Pierre-Henri Castel, La Querelle de l’hystérie. La formation du discours psychopathologique en France (1881-1913), Paris, Presses universitaires de France, "Bibliothèque du Collège international de philosophie," 1998, 349 p. Préface de Guy Semama. Préface, p. 1: "Par cette préface, le Collège international de philosophie entend affirmer un engagement philosophique fort à l’égard de l’acte de naissance intellectuelle d’un jeune auteur qui, n’étant ni psychiatre ni sociologue, étudie en philosophe des questions posées par le statut de la vie subjective et le mode d’existence du "mental"; sans autre ambition que de réassumer le risque de la pensée." My translation.
. Laurence L. Bongie, Sade. A Biographical Essay, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, xii-336 p., p. xii. Darnton’s review was published in the January 14, 1999 issue of The New York Review of Books.
. Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, New York, St. Martin’s, 1996, 369 p.
. Norbert Sclippa (firstname.lastname@example.org), "Forbidden Knowledge," message dated Tue, 14 Dec 1999 08:28:55 -0500, and "A simple question for Roger Shattuck," message dated Thu, 16 Dec 1999 10:59:31 -0500.
. Tony Saroop (email@example.com), "IDSS Launched at http://www.idss.org/," message dated Sat, 25 Dec 1999 08:59:09 -0800.
. Bongie, p. 191.
. Bongie, p. vii-viii.
. Bongie, p. ix.
. Bongie, p. 218, for example.
. Versini’s review was published in Romanische Forschungen, 111, 2, 1999, p. 290-292; mine in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 11, 4, July 1999, p. 511-514.
. Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity. Approaches to a Form, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1982, viii-235 p.; Vincent Kaufmann, L’Équivoque épistolaire, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, "Critique," 1990, 199 p.
. E-mail message quoted by John Seabrook in his Deeper. Adventures on the Net, New York, Simon & Schuster, A Touchstone Book, 1998 (1997), 288 p., p. 58.
. For a brief overview of eighteenth-century computer-related research, see my forthcoming "Lumières et Internet," Études françaises, 36, 2, 2000.
. Sven Birkets, The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, New York, Fawcett Columbine, "Cultural Series," 1994, xiv-231 p.
. The Internet version of his review is located at <http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/aandc/gutenbrg/wschirev.htm>.
. Christian Vandendorpe, Du papyrus à l’hypertexte. Essai sur les mutations du texte et de la lecture, Montréal, Boréal, 1999, 271 p. Ill. He quotes Birkerts on p. 243.
. See Hans-Wolfgang Schneiders, "Le prétendu système des renvois dans l’Encyclopédie," in Peter-Eckhard Knabe and Edgar Mass (ed.), L’Encyclopédie et Diderot, Cologne, Verlag Köln, DME, "Kölner Schriften zur Romanischen Kultur 2/Textes et documents," 1985, p. 247-260.
. See my "Les cataractes de Chassaignon," Tangence (Rimouski), 57, May 1998, p. 72-86.
. Darrin M. McMahon, "The Counter-Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France," Past and Present, 159, May 1998, p. 77-112.
. Didier Masseau, L’Invention de l’intellectuel dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, "Perspectives littéraires," 1994, 172 p.
. Jean-Jacques Rutlidge, Les Comédiens au foyer, Le Bureau d’esprit, Le Train de Paris ou les bourgeois du temps, ed. by Pierre Peyronnet, Paris, Honoré Champion, "L’âge des Lumières," 3, 1999, 382 p.
. Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters. A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment, Ithaca (NY) and London, Cornell University Press, 1994, xii-338 p.; Darrin M. McMahon, "Enemies of the Enlightenment: Anti-Philosophes and the Birth of the French Far Right, 1778-1830", New Haven, Yale University, Ph.D. dissertation, 1997; Jolanta T. Pekacz, Conservative Tradition in Pre-Revolutionary France. Parisian Salon Women, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Boston, Bern, Francfort, Berlin, Vienna and Paris, Peter Lang, "The Age of Revolution and Romanticism: Interdisciplinary Studies," 25, 1999, 256 p.
. Michael O’Rourke, University College Dublin (tranquilised_icon@YAHOO.COM), "Queer Theory-Treat or Threat?(part Three)," message dated Fri, 04 Feb 2000 13:03:28 -0800, on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion (C18-L@LISTS.PSU.EDU).
. Raymond Stephanson, "The Symbolic Structure of Eighteenth-Century Creativity: Pregnant Men, Brain-Wombs, and Female Muses (With Some Comments on Pope’s Dunciad)," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 27, 1998, p. 103-130.
. Donald Kennedy, Academic Duty, Cambridge and Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1999 (1997), viii-310 p., p. 277.
. Jean-Fabien Spitz, "Les trois misères de l’universitaire ordinaire," Le Débat, 108, January-February 2000, p. 4-17, esp. 6-8.
. See Jean M. Goulemot, "Parcours," in Mélanges offerts à Georges Benrekassa, forthcoming.
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