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Qu'est-Ce Que La Littrature, Aujourd'Hui?

Author(s): Eric Gans


Source: New Literary History, Vol. 38, No. 1, What Is Literature Now? (Winter, 2007), pp.
33-41
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057988
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Qu'est-ce que la litt?rature, aujourd'hui?


Eric Gans
In 1947, Sartre published a little book entitled Qu'est-ce que la
litt?rature} (What is literature}) whose central idea, which became very

influential, was that prose was "transparent" to its meaning and was
therefore an appropriate vehicle for making what analytic philosophers
call "truth claims" about the world?a view that made every novel into
a roman ? th?se?whereas poetic language was "opaque," conveying the
poet's subjective intuitions through its specific configuration of signifiers
and their connotations. Sartre's sympathies lay with the prosateur because

his conception of literature, which was in essence that of the Third


Republic, put more stake in the ethical message than in its aesthetic
integument. Despite this weakening of the aesthetic faith on which the
literary edifice ultimately rests, what most strikes us in Sartre's argument

is the critical importance he attributes to literature as the privileged


means for conveying this message.
Sartre's title and the preoccupations attached to it have become alien
to us. Those academic entities that formerly thought of themselves as
"literature departments" have so far expanded their purview into other
cultural and textual areas that a beginning scholar whose intellectual
background is largely confined, as was typical until recently, to the study
of the classical texts of one or more national literatures would scarcely
be able to land a job in one of them. The rise over the past few decades
of "area studies" and "cultural studies" as well as the more recent trend
toward "postcolonial studies" is among other things a reaction against
the autotelic textual analyses of the New Critical era, which even when
reading prose focused exclusively on the text's opacity at the expense of
its content. Poststructuralist deconstruction widened the critical horizon
to include "nonliterary" texts, but these were almost always high-cultural,

most often philosophical. In contrast, the objects that engage these new
fields are read less as texts than as documents whose composition is subject
to real-world constraints and desiderata, whether or not these constraints

are thematized in the documents themselves.

This is not to deny that the lion's share of the energy driving these
developments comes from postmodern victimary politics; the two trends

New Literary History, 2007, 38: 33-41

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34

NEW LITERARY HISTORY

are complementary. On the one hand, the victimary trend in academic


thought is suspicious of majority domination in cultural as well as political

matters, notably including the criteria by which such things as literary


canons are constructed; on the other, the exclusive focus on literary or
philosophical texts, even if the purpose of deconstructing them be to
subvert their legitimacy, can itself be understood as an act of "domination"
by the cultures that produce these texts. Thus at the limit even that classic

of victimary ideology, Edward Said's Orientalism, can be reproached with


an exclusive concentration on the thoughts and texts of the hegemonic
culture rather than on those of the "subalterns" whose cause the author

is presumably defending. But the writings produced by the Other are


rarely good subjects for text-centered analysis, which would risk putting
on display their relative thinness in comparison to the masterworks of
the Western "great tradition" on which they in great measure depend.
Instead, these works, whether political tracts or novels, plays or poems,
tend to be read in a historical context far more densely conceived than
that of traditional literary history, let alone the exclusively textual context

of the New Criticism. The very dependency of postcolonial writing on


Western modes makes it apt for the revelation of (and struggle against)
Western hegemony. In contrast, the rival great traditions of India and

China or even Islam are seldom touched on in these new branches of


study. Not only would immersion in these traditions require a near

lifetime commitment, but by its very nature, serious engagement with


another culture is incompatible with the internal dialectic of oppressor
and oppressed that is rooted in one's own.1

This historical and sociological turn has affected both area studies

and the study of popular culture within our own society. Although the
victimary politics that continues to motivate it is today in urgent need of
revision, I consider this turn on balance a healthy development. What
ever one's original motivation, to take a concrete interest in "subaltern"
cultures is to become aware not merely of their victimary history but of
their internal pathologies, which cannot simply be blamed on contact
with the West. Such awareness is substantially independent of a priori
political positions and operates to sensitize us to the real-world problems
of these societies, both more intractable and more humanly significant
than "textual" ones. Thus the study of the literature of developing coun
tries lets us experience something of the relationship to literature that
still existed in our own culture in Sartre's time. If Western nations have
finished evolving and may even be dissolving, postcolonial nations are
still bringing themselves into being, and in order to do so, each one
seeks to create something that is increasingly treated with irony in the
West: a national literature.

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qu'est-ce que la litt?rature, aujourd'hui?

35

I. The Literary Myth


The earliest use of litt?rature in its modern sense in the ARTFL database

dates from 1634, where it still bears its medieval English meaning of
literary culture, as in "he had great literature." The newer sense of literary
productions or writing is first found at the end of the seventeenth century,

and in 1734 Voltaire uses the term litt?rature fran?aise. By the turn of
the nineteenth century, marked by Mme de Sta?l's De la litt?rature, the
term was in common use. Particularly in conjunction with an adjective
like fran?aise, which refers ambivalently to a language and a "culture,"
litt?rature designates, and thereby helps to bring into conceptual being, a
transtemporal national entity into which each new writer is conceived as
(and conceives him or herself as) requesting entry. Sta?l's book, which
brought to France a nascent Germanic tradition of "literary history,"
treats litt?rature from antiquity to the present in a series of chapters about

national literatures. Literary consciousness contributed to the formation


of national entities, including the as yet purely virtual "German nation."
(Sta?l's best known novel, Corinne, ou Vltalie, is centered on the other

major stateless European "nation.") Literature is the most national of


the arts for the obvious reason that it is written in the "national" lan

guage and reflects, however perversely, its implicit worldview. It is also


the most generic of the arts, requiring no highly specialized talent or
technique. Thus the growing salience of the idea of literature gave rise
to a significant phenomenon of nineteenth-century culture: the quasi
universal ambition of educated young men, and some young women,
to achieve personal salvation through literary authorship. The garrets
of Henri M?rger's boh?me were populated with painters and occasional
musicians, but they were above all full of writers.
Less obviously, the emergence of the concept of literature corresponds
to the rise of the novel to the top of the heap of literary genres. The
Italian Renaissance, concerned with "illustrating" the national vernacular,
had focused its attention primarily on lyric and epic poetry; the French
proved themselves more adept at imitating the former than the latter.
Following the sixteenth-century religious wars, the stabilization of early

modern Europe restored the classical primacy of the theater. Nicolas


Boileau's neoclassical Art po?tique begins with lyric poetry, discusses theater

at length, and makes a few obligatory remarks about epic; the novel is
mentioned only disdainfully in passing. At the time of Sta?l's book, tragic
drama remained the highest of literary genres. For Schiller, Hegel, and
their contemporaries, the typical mark of sentimental literary modernity
(in contrast with the na?ve creations of the ancients) is not the modern

novel's divergence from epic but the absence of a chorus in modern


theater. Yet De la litt?rature is already beginning to move away from these

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NEW7 LITERARY HISTORY

emphases. Although Sta?l's brief discussion of Spanish literature fails to


mention Cervantes, she is full of enthusiasm for Werther and she admires
the English novel, which she opposes to the French (including Rousseau's
vastly popular Nouvelle H?lo?se) as describing les moeurs de la nation (the
manners, or "lifestyle," of the nation). Her novel Corinne itself illustrates
this distinction: it presents Italy as a classical, public space, almost as a
locus for tourism, whereas the private settings of the scenes situated in
England (Corinne, we discover, was born an Englishwoman) convey an
intimate sense of place.
As the nineteenth century advanced, the limitations of the theater as
the standard-bearer of national literature became increasingly apparent.
The modern nation is a virtual rather than concrete entity that operates
more powerfully through representations shared by ordinary individuals
in their homes than by those performed for an elite in a public spec
tacle. The nationalism of postrevolutionary market society reflects and
reinforces the nodal nature of the intensified human interactivity of the
marketplace; the relative autonomy of national markets creates a need

for general literacy in a uniform national language. The individual


in market society is not bound by the ineluctable fatalities of classical
tragedy but by contingent obstacles thrown up by encounters with rival
desires knowable only through worldly experience. If theater was well
adapted to revealing the paradoxes inherent in traditional, ritual-based
societies, the novel is more suited to exploring market society's unpre

dictable dialectic of desire and resentment. Only the mediating voice


of an "omniscient" narrator could make comprehensible the characters'
experience of this newly opaque world. The novel alone is long and
detailed enough to convey a nation's distinctive "density of life"; to its
specificity of language corresponds a specificity of institutions, attitudes,

customs, and objects.


The possibility of what was once called "literary evolution" depends on
the symbiosis of a literary genre with a social structure such that as the
structure matures and reveals its inchoate possibilities, the genre "evolves"

to reflect these possibilities. The nineteenth-century evolution of market


society from its early stages to the beginnings of consumer society had
room for two series of such attempts, in lyric poetry and in the novel.
The evolution of both genres roughly corresponds to that of the most
general attitudes of the "bourgeois self as it maneuvered to define its
own niche in a world permeated by the values of exchange, but it is the
novel alone that situates the self concretely in this world.2
The use of the novel to convey this density was a recent development.
There is a vast difference between Laclos near the end of the eighteenth
century and his admirer Stendhal a generation later. Les liaisons dangere
uses is a masterpiece but it is not a national work like Le rouge et le noir, or

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QU'EST-CE QUE LA LITT?RATURE, AUJOURD'HUI?

37

the novels of Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Theodor Fontane, Benito P?rez


Gald?s, or Alessandro Manzoni. The works of the great nineteenth-cen
tury novelists seemed to embody the notion?or the myth?of a national
literature as a set of immortal masterpieces, what Matthew Arnold would
call later in the century "the best that has been thought and said." The
transition from Balzac's fascinated discovery of the arcana of the mod
ern socioeconomic order to Flaubert's cynical denigration of the values
of the market in both economic and political terms does not signify a
withdrawal from market society so much as a more nuanced relationship
to it. Emma Bovary's consumerism reflects a new stage of the market
economy in which we all participate, and where bankruptcy and suicide
are relatively rare. Fr?d?ric Moreau, the protagonist of Flaubert's later
masterpiece, L'?ducation sentimentale, survives life's disillusions with his
adolescent dream unfulfilled but imaginarily intact.
Yet Emma's and even Frederic's experience of the world are not quite
that of the novelist himself. The final step in that progression was taken
by Marcel Proust, who is no longer hostile to the exchange system but
indifferent to it except as a mediator of the interpersonal attitudes and
postures that constitute the self's "lost time." Considered as late as the
1960s as the eccentric creator of an idiosyncratically beautiful but flawed
work, Proust has become the principal literary icon of the twentieth
century.3 Unlike England, Spain, Italy, and Germany with Shakespeare,
Cervantes, Dante, and Goethe, France long lacked a "superwriter" who
could serve as a universal point of reference for its national literature.
Racine, who had held this position in the era of French neoclassicism,
was chased from his throne by the Romantics, who found him wanting
in the sublime fecundity of Shakespeare and the other national writers.
The throne stood vacant for nearly two centuries, but today Proust is
its unchallenged occupant. More books have been written about Proust
than any other French writer, including those who lived centuries before
him. Yet Proust, who lived at the very end of the heyday of European

nationalism, is scarcely a "national writer" at all. His narrator's deci

sion to leave the world and begin writing is pointedly situated in the
aftermath of World War I, which destroyed for good the intellectual
comforts of the nation-centered nineteenth century. Even more than
his contemporary cosmopolitans Joyce and Kafka, Proust is not just a
national but a transnational writer. Indeed, the degree to which Proust
is identified with the generic idea of "literature" has come to rival that
of Shakespeare himself.
During the several decades following the publication of Du c?t? de chez
Swann in 1913, the time required for Proust to scale the literary summit,
the educated class continued to believe (at least in their youth) in the
nineteenth-century myth of literature. This myth was both universal and

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NEW LITERARY HISTORY

national, as we are reminded by the semi-ironic ambition of every young


writer in the United States to write "the great American novel." By the
time we realized that Proust had already written the great transnational
novel, and that his own weakly narrative, "intermittent" life story was the

last word in the aesthetic construction of the bourgeois self, we had lost
our faith in literary salvation and, with it, in literature as a living and
motivating category.

II. The Archival Culture4


It is the archival aspect of contemporary society that compensates us
for the loss of the literary myth. The practice of recording our words
and actions is fast becoming automatic. Soon all our e-mails will be saved
for posterity, if they are not already. Video cameras may soon record our
every public move, perhaps even our private ones. The more petabytes and
exabytes' of storage we acquire, the more the fact that we are no longer

obliged to throw anything out is converted into the legal obligation


to save it all. If God in our culture has sometimes been envisaged as a
cosmic Santa Claus who records all our thoughts and actions in order
to determine who is naughty or nice, today the human world is in the
process of embodying his memory capacity, if not his moral judgment;
there is already enough room on an ordinary hard disk for the name
of every human being in the world. The archival universe constructs an
afterlife, neither Heaven nor Hell, where we are all immortal by default.
In a society in which everyone is assured of immortality, we all seek fame

as well, but our quest need not be mortal like ourselves. Since each
archive entry is increasingly more complete and once compiled, goes

on forever, we can envision reality shows of the future that will tap the

posthumous record, an "American Idol" chosen from voices recorded


long ago. We can't all be famous, even for fifteen minutes, but we can
console ourselves with the thought that even after death we will remain
potentially famous.
Complementary to the universal archive and chronologically anticipat
ing it, there have emerged more specific substitutes for literature: the
personal Web page and its variants such as MySpace and FaceBook, and
most importantly, the blog Not content to let the soulless system write
our story for us, we are increasingly tempted to organize it for ourselves
by composing on a daily basis a running account of our various activi
ties. What was formerly the province of diaries meant to be seen only
by their creator and perhaps a few intimates now resides, universally
accessible, on the Internet. Such writings put us at the antipodes of the
myth of Literature to which only the most gifted and dedicated could

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QU'EST-CE QUE LA LITT?RATURE, AUJOURD'HUI?

39

aspire. The blogger is likely to be gainfully employed or in the process


of preparing for gainful employment, but his day-to-day activities need
not be conducted with the Napoleonic drive of a Julien Sorel or even a
Raskolnikov?who today might well be bloggers themselves. The personal
blog typically records a series of incidents and reflections each connected
to what precedes less by a "plot" than by the simple inertia of existence;
over time we typically deal with the same people, engage in the same
activities, think similar thoughts, and these evolve "historically" without
any special effort to construct them as a history. Some of these Internet
narratives have a commercial edge, touting the sale of stories or songs
or videos; some provide technical advice or political wisdom; some solicit
romance, fleeting or permanent?and in each group, some attract, un

predictably, an ephemeral mass audience and sudden fame. Each blog


that enters the blogosphere, whether posted on a lark or shrewdly targeted,

joins a mass market for attention and possibly more substantial rewards.
All are, in one form or another, narratives of individual lives.

When we examine what there is about Proust's unique novel that allows
it to escape the twin excesses of solipsism and naturalism, we discover in
the author's and by extension the narrator's attitude toward experience
a curious anticipation of our own. By maintaining the ambiguous status
of his life-experience as both wasted time and material for art, Proust

was a forerunner of the bloggers of today. His novel comes closer to


the form of a blog than any other great work of literature. When we
compare A la recherche, as per the common clich?, to a cathedral, we are
pointing up its similarity to an edifice whose construction may continue
for centuries but that from the beginning (once the roof is put on) can
be used as a place of worship. A cathedral is a work in progress defined
in advance by its sacred end. Because a work of literature is built only
with words, Proust's novel was able to fulfill its formal design from the
beginning through the virtual construction of the protective "roof that
is the concluding promise of the protagonist's salvation through art. As
a result, the individual elements of the novel are not designed as a con
tinuous narrative that depicts the unfolding of a single or perhaps dual
plot. The narrator's faith in his literary vocation holds the book together
at the expense of the full engagement of his desire in the world that
would provide his life and his book with a coherent story line; even the
more concentrated sections that deal with his relationship with Albertine
describe a series of discreet incidents, intermittent as is, finally, their rela

tionship as a whole. Proust's novel, although full of ironic coincidence,


all but lacks the novelistic tension between life's linear course and the
impingement of often unpredictable events that threaten to perturb or
destroy it. No doubt the Proustian narrator's unconcern for either eco
nomic goals or anything resembling marriage and family is the product

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NEW7 LITERARY HISTORY

of his privileged social situation; but this is just another way of saying
that the protagonist is maximally close to embodying the author's total
devotion to the literary myth that motivates his narrative. Flaubert's final,

caricatural heroes, Bouvard and P?cuchet, "authors" like himself, begin


their story only on retirement.
At a certain moment the visible passage of time on his friends' faces
makes Proust's protagonist realize that his and every personal history
constructs itself willy-nilly by the mere fact of human mortality. It is
then that he decides to write his novel, so to speak the equivalent of
publishing his blog in a more permanent form. The fact of being the
first person to conceive a blog as a novel, or rather, to conceive the novel
as a lifelong blog, explains the extreme care with which Proust refined
and elaborated each "entry," all the while never really departing from
its desultory overall form.
If this analysis is pertinent, then Proust's novel, which until recently
had never appeared particularly modern in comparison with the avant
garde efforts of Joyce or the nouveau roman?or even of Andr? Gide in
Lesfaux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), which during my undergraduate

years was admired as a daring modernist experiment?is now seen to


have followed the most advanced conception of all. Proust realizes the
ultimate degree of fragmentation that narration can sustain without, by
arousing and frustrating the reader's expectations, recalling and rein
forcing traditional narrative conventions in the very act of transgressing
them. Proust's blog-narrative may not follow a conventional plot, but it
does not shirk from telling stories and has no desire to confuse us by
refusing to distinguish dreams, hopes, and memories from "real" events.
Each entry tells its tale as clearly as possible; the blog as a whole has no
plot other than its existence within a life-trajectory to which only the
blog-novel can lend significance. By the time we become aware that this
is all the immortality almost any of us can hope to achieve, it is too late
for us to emulate Proust?but not too late to read his novel.
I believe Proust's blog-novel will remain unique. Precisely because the
Internet and exabyte storage let us all accede painlessly to immortality,
not only will no one have the tenacity to imitate Proust's lifelong devo
tion to his oeuvre, but even if he did, no one else would want to read the
result. The absolute novel is already written.
Yet a world where the literary myth survives only in muted forms is
not a world without literature, merely a world where literature knows its
place, a world of stories that we need not believe in as the universal story.

As recent events keep trying to tell us, the survival of our technologically
superior civilization is not a foregone conclusion. Nor does its capacity
to make every detail of our lives immortal make it any easier for us to

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QU'EST-CE QUE LA LITT?RATURE, AUJOURD'HUI? 41

sacrifice these lives in its defense. Although in times that allow us to


cultivate the illusion of perpetual peace, traditional narratives may strike
us as failing to convey the paradoxical richness of our experience of self
and other, times of war provoke in us the need to contemplate and on
occasion, to emulate, tales that give meaning to our mortality.

University of California?Los Angeles


NOTES
1 I am reminded of a campus debate a few years ago over whether to impose a "diversity

requirement"; as proposed, the requirement would have been satisfied by a course on


Chinese-American literature, but not by a course on Chinese literature.
2 In this respect, Baudelaire's evolution from lyric poetry to prose poetry in Le spleen de
Paris (The Spleen [depression/resentful frustration] of Paris) is less a broadening of the
powers of the poetic than a sign of its limitations; the more concretely "Parisian" Baudelaire
becomes, the more the prose poem resembles a short story. It is significant that the poetry,

in verse and in prose, of Baudelaire's major successors abandons the attempt to define a
"realistic" social space, and that the later poetry that does so was subject to parody by the
"Zutistes" in the form of vieux Copp?es.
3 Ren? Girard's article, "O? va le roman?" French Review 30 (January 1957): 201-6, after

a disapproving look at the contemporary novel, ends prophetically: "If I may hazard a
prediction in conclusion, I will say that the novel will recover its equilibrium and its depth
[only] when it discovers Remembrance of Things Past."
4 The chief ideas of this section emerged from discussion with my Proustophile archivist

wife, Stacey Meeker.


5 One petabyte = one quadrillion or 1015 bytes; one exabyte = one quintillion or 1018
bytes, one million terabytes.

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