Third Trial: Morality
Madame Bovary in the seventeenth century. Family business. Proof that one can simultaneously be a Hellenist, a Protestant, a liberal, and a gallant. Socrates, the Calvinist. The child prodigy, and the associated method. The best Hellenist in France. The prodigal and parricidal son. Unnatural poets. The school of vice. Were David and Moses poets? Immorality of form and futility of poetry. A bourgeois condemnation of literature. Enter a young and likable champion of the literary cause. On the cremation of heretical books. A patron saint and martyr of anti-literature. Acting the fool with the fool. Against the castration of writers. The censor censored. The duel of the sons. The versatility of Virgil. The ideal of a serious and sincere poetry. Racine, father and son. Psychoanalysis of anti-literature. An extended phase of teenage angst. Huck Finn in the rye. Trigger warning on Ovid. An American anti-literature? A very smelly cheese. Instability of the moral lesson. Every reader is immature. An anti-literature competition. How poetry toppled two empires. The hypothesis of the clog maker-poet. Rousseau, the burner of libraries. Weakened by literature. The beginnings of art for art’s sake. Mardi Gras in Florence. The bonfire of the vanities. Orpheus, the first sodomite. Truths that should not be spoken. A citizen is always a minor. Irrationality of poetry. In praise of Soviet and Sulpician literature. The disciple’s reply to his master. There is nothing virtuous about virtuous plots. Of the usefulness of bad passions. Plato caught in the act of writing poetry. Reading novels and Alzheimer’s disease. When the poison is also the remedy.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN the trial over truth and the trial over morality is easily drawn. In 1668, the Oratorian father Bernard Lamy published his Nouvelles Réflexions sur l’art poétique (New reflections on the art of poetry). Hidden behind this innocuous title was a scathing indictment of poetry. The author, a Cartesian and a mathematician, criticized poetry for containing fanciful images and for turning readers’ attention to created beings while at the same time hiding their imperfections, thus causing readers to forget the Creator. This was the classic, Platonic argument against the false world created by fiction.
Father Lamy then claimed that this lie had a moral consequence: not only does poetry inspire bad passions, but, even if these passions were good, poetry would render them pointless and even “criminal” because they would be focused on nonexistent objects. He takes the example of a woman who reads novels: “If such a woman is accustomed to the marriages that are described in novels, and fails to find all the false and imaginary qualities of a hero in her husband, she is not well disposed to love him.”1 Two centuries later, this would be the gist of Madame Bovary.
IN THE MODERN ERA, women are seen as the principal victims of literature, along with children, and the anti-literary diatribe is unleashed in the name of conjugal and family values. The instrumentalization of these values to champion questionable causes is not a new phenomenon.
In fact, families are often the source of the first literary trauma, just as they are of so many other problems. One such example is the strange story of a father, his daughter, and his sons, in which a poorly handled Oedipus complex finally manifests itself as an acute and memorable case of anti-literature.
TO BEGIN WITH, the father. Tanneguy Le Fèvre, a professor at the Protestant Academy of Saumur, was one of the most famous French Hellenists of the seventeenth century. He published editions of Anacreon, Sappho, Aristophanes, Plato, and Lucian, not to mention the Romans Terence, Horace, and Lucretius—free-spirited, even libertine writers who were in principle not compatible with the Calvinism to which Le Fèvre had converted shortly before turning thirty.
A conversion of convenience? More likely an indication of a spirit of reform resulting from the study of humanist and liberal texts, which is consistent with Tanneguy Le Fèvre’s reputation as a gallant man, fond of the fair sex. In fact, Le Fèvre hesitated to accept offers of professorships at universities in Germany and the Netherlands for fear of shutting himself into a Protestant austerity for which he had little affinity. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he died unexpectedly before finally leaving to take a position in Heidelberg.
His preface to his French translation of the First Alcibiades suggests an inner torment, a kind of Augustinian, or even pre-Baudelairian, dual aspiration:
There is no man under the sun who is master of his thoughts, who can remain firm in the most holy resolution in the world and does not grow tired of the highest contemplation to which he sometimes lifts his soul.2
This is true of virtue:
We feel certain powerful and magnanimous emotions that lead us to this great idea [of virtue]; we give it our applause and our esteem, I still confess; but after having given it our esteem and our applause, we refuse it our love. It is as beautiful as can be, this idea that is so loudly praised; but we do not love this beauty; we will adore it, if you like, we will present it with incense in front of a large public, and we will be very pleased that history speaks of it; but despite this appearance of worship, it does not, however, claim our heart.3
What a beautifully lyrical way to express human weakness and the inability to live according to one’s ideals. One can feel that these words are the product of personal experience: that of a man who, seeing good, does the evil he does not want, as Saint Paul wrote, himself repeating a commonplace of Greek thought found in Euripides.4 Le Fèvre and Saint Paul come to the same conclusion: one can only love virtue and get better at it with “the assistance of divine grace.” This is exactly what Socrates says at the end of the dialogue, when he warns Alcibiades that he will only be able to become virtuous if “he pleases God”: in this regard, Plato is in agreement with—and even heralds—the Apostle. Le Fèvre adds:
Would to God that this monstrous morality that today dishonors the face of Christianity had taken some lessons from Socrates and taken advantage of some of the reasoning in this dialogue!5
Here, Le Fèvre is taking aim at Catholicism and its blind trust, according to the Reformed church, in the ability to achieve salvation through good works and rites, in other words through effort alone. This is how one reconciles the philosophy of the pagans and the most orthodox Calvinism.
For Le Fèvre’s second—if not first—religion was the literature and thought of the Ancients, which he tirelessly shared with young people. He had a reputation as an extraordinary educator, and for the next two centuries, his Méthode pour commencer les humanités grecques et latines (Method for starting on Greek and Latin humanities) was steadily republished, commented upon, and discussed.
Le Fèvre did not put this method into practice only at his school; he also tried it out at home, on his own children, and with considerable success. In fact, he probably would not have considered publishing the method and sharing it with the world at large if the opportunity had not presented itself through a family tragedy: the death of his eldest son, Daniel, in whom he had placed the most brilliant hopes. The famous Méthode was a funerary monument to this son lost too early, whose premature death cruelly emphasized the effectiveness of the education he had received:
“I went about it in such a way,” wrote the father,
that by the time he died (which happened at the end of his fourteenth year), he had twice read The Iliad from start to finish and did justice to its parts as readily as a reasonably good teacher would (for he was never undecided and never hesitated). He also knew Virgil’s Aeneid, Terence, Phaedra, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Sallust, Plautus’s first comedy, the first and second by Aristophanes, and the first three books by Titus Livius, aside from the other minor authors one must know in order to understand those works I have just mentioned and which are probably the most beautiful ones in the two languages.
The supplementary books I used to achieve an understanding of the others were Eutropius, Aurelius Victor, Justin, Aesop’s Fables, and the five historical books of the New Testament. I forgot to say that around the time he was thirteen, I had him learn the Hebrew verbs orally from one of my friends, for I thought that this language could be very useful for finding an endless number of word origins in Greek.
Now, I ask everyone with common sense: what kind of man would such a child one day have been, had he but reached his twentieth year? Imagine what we could have raised on such good foundations.6
The Méthode therefore presents itself as the narrative of the intimate relationship between a father and his son and concludes, as it had begun, with a “small outburst of pain and tenderness”: two poems in Latin mark the end of this short work, like two stelae erected in memory of the dead child.7
Yet the book is not without contradictions: on the one hand, it celebrates the exceptional nature of a lost son, while on the other, it affirms that “to do as much, and perhaps even more, only one thing is needed: a good teacher”—that is to say, a good method.8 As if, in some way, pedagogy had the power to bring back the miracle of a family joy that had been shattered.
And why not? To be a good teacher, Le Fèvre specifies, it is not enough to have a good grasp on what one is supposed to teach: one must also have “a father’s affection for his disciple,” which amounts to making this disciple into a new son.9
LE FÈVRE’S RELATIONSHIP to literature was inseparable from an ethics, an affect, of the most intimate personal experience. His own family experienced it—and it is here that we duly enter into the conflict.
Le Fèvre had five children. The unfortunate prodigy was the second child. Before him, there was a daughter, Anne. The Méthode says nothing about Anne: at the time, a daughter mattered little, and her education even less. Yet unbeknownst to her father, Anne took advantage of his lessons, learned Greek and Latin by imitating her brothers’ work, and was eventually recognized as a marvelously gifted student, so much so that after a few years she had become the most famous Hellenist in France and “the most scholarly woman in the world.”10 She is not known to us by her maiden name but by that of her husband, André Dacier, a student whom Le Fèvre had agreed to board. Anne was none other than the famous Madame Dacier, whose translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey caused such a commotion at the beginning of the eighteenth century that it sparked a literary and poetic revolution—a revolution that we will have occasion to return to.11
EVERY FAMILY EXUDES its antinomies: Anne, the good little girl, tried hard to take the place of the lost son—and succeeded brilliantly. It fell to the youngest of the siblings to play the part of the rebel. His name was Tanneguy, like his father. The burdens of a shared first name and the memory of a dead older brother were probably too heavy: if Anne was the child prodigy, Tanneguy was the prodigal son. Or rather the opposite, for it is not in debauchery that Tanneguy would lose himself. Far from the liberal humanism professed by his father, he shut himself into an austere Calvinism, chose to study mathematics, moved to Neuchâtel to serve as a minister, and then settled in Amsterdam and later in England before returning to his sister’s home in Paris and recanting his Protestant faith in order to receive a pension from the king—one cannot be a prodigal son without returning to the fold.12
Just as one cannot be a prodigal son without wanting to kill one’s father. Tanneguy made a methodical attempt to do so with De futilitate poetices, an opuscule in Latin published in Amsterdam in 1697, the full title of which translates as “Futility of Poetry, by Tanneguy Le Fèvre, son of Tanneguy, Minister of the Divine Word.” The shared first name painfully emphasized the generational difference between, on the one hand, the vain poetry enthusiast and famous editor of Anacreon, Sappho, and Horace, and on the other, his dignified minister of a son—if Tanneguy the elder had not already been fifteen years in the grave, this new text would certainly have sent him there. A tombstone is a poor shield against family quarrels.
There was no more effective way of killing the father than by settling the score against the invariant goal of his existence, the occupation by which he hoped to survive in human memory: reading and commenting on the Ancient writers and poets. Throughout the history of anti-literature, there have been few attacks as systematic and premeditated as the one launched against poetry in the late seventeenth century from the fine city of Amsterdam by a minister not yet thirty and deep in the grips of an Oedipal crisis. Woe betide him whose enemy has not resolved his childhood problems.
In nineteen chapters, Tanneguy the younger literally sends literature ad patres. One has only to read the chapter titles, which are repeated like a refrain: “That the love of poetry has engendered the contempt of truth,” “That the ancient poets were impious,” “That the poets of our time are even further from piety than the Ancients,” “That the crimes of poets are the most certain effect and proof of their impiety,” “That by their own admission the most famous poets were the vilest of men.”13
And so on and so forth, nineteen times over, to be sure to drive home the point—or rather to drive the knife into the paternal remains nineteen times over. There is nothing ambiguous about the son’s project:
If, through invincible arguments, I show that the art of poetry is one of the most harmful sources of ignorance, impiety, and every crime, it will be readily apparent that its charm and the other qualities which are attributed to it should not make it any less worthy of contempt.14
This young minister has the spirit of a Savonarola. Might the target seem too elevated for such a greenhorn? Tanneguy anticipates the objection:
No matter if I am illustrious or obscure, famous or unknown, for that has no impact on this matter, and certainly nothing is more unjust than to judge based on hatred, love, or the affection one has for the parties present! The poets in all their writings constantly correct each other, they declaim out loud and we listen to them; how can it then be forbidden to attack in prose those whom they themselves attack in their satirical poems, and to do out of concern for the truth what they do simply out of carelessness?15
He goes on to quote with irony a passage from Juvenal that contains the famous line Semper ego auditor tantum: “Shall I always be stuck in the audience? Never retaliate for being tortured so often by hoarse Cordus’ Song of Theseus? Let them get away with it then—this one reciting me his Roman comedies, and that one his love elegies?”16 This quotation from the Latin satirist is anything but innocent: its message of vengeance reflects Tanneguy’s own resentment toward a father obsessed with poetry and literature, who subjected his children to a classical education made particularly effective by the fact that it was totalitarian. In the long run, all these lessons produced the opposite of the intended effect, and the best teacher wound up training the most hateful disciple—who happened to be his son.
Any method will do when it comes to fulfilling this desire for revenge. Tanneguy is not above malicious gossip:
If we examine the lives of the poets whose works are presented as the canons of art, we discover that some were drunkards, others debauched, others adulterers, and others yet were infected with execrable vices that are in our parts rightly punishable by death: Aeschylus wrote his tragedies under the influence of alcohol; Homer and Hesiod suffer the torments of Hell, one hanging from a column, the other being bitten by snakes for eternity, and this fiction regarding Homer and Hesiod gives a clear indication of how they were perceived; Horace and Sophocles, immersed in the pleasures of the body, were guilty of abominable passions; suffering from the same disorder, Virgil sang his own desire through the figure of Corydon in the second Eclogue; similarly, Pindar breathed his last on the lap of the boy he cherished; Aristophanes ruined his reputation through the most shameful traffic in calumny and the death of Socrates; Terence won the favor he enjoys through the help of those to whom he prostituted his modesty; due to obscene verses and other crimes, Ovid was sent into exile by Augustus, the wisest of emperors, despite Augustus’s well-known benevolence toward men of letters and his universal clemency; finally, Euripides hated women and was among those whom Apocalypse calls dogs, which is exactly why God wanted to have him torn apart by dogs, soiled as he was by crimes to which nature is loath to give a name.17
What frenzied, intoxicated pleasure Tanneguy the younger finds in recalling in a single sentence, nearly a single breath, every last crime of the poets! How could one defend poetry after hearing such a list? Who would dare? And who would entrust their children to such tutors? Who would have them read Homer, Aristophanes, Ovid, Terence, or Virgil? Yet this was exactly the education that Tanneguy Le Fèvre the elder had given his family. He had even bragged about it: what an unworthy or at the very least unthinking father!
In fact, there is basically only a single crime that constantly appears in the honorable minister’s work: sexual debauchery and, more specifically, what was then called sodomy and is now better known as homosexuality. The prudish Tanneguy does not even risk naming it: to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it is the crime that dare not speak its name. Guilty only of writing under the influence and of spreading malicious gossip, Aeschylus and Aristophanes are no match for Virgil and Pindar in the race to ignominy: the real crime of the poets is first and foremost the crime against nature. Two hundred and fifty years later, the British physicist Charles Percy Snow said exactly the same thing, though he said it in a more roundabout way and under a more liberal facade.18 Homophobia and anti-literature fight the same fight: that against an activity considered useless, asocial, counterproductive, and anti-family. Unlike Snow, Tanneguy the younger at least had the excuse of religious fanaticism and a traumatic childhood.
Reading the poets is no more, no less than a school for vice:
Yet here are these famous prophets whose oracles so many men meditate with incredible zeal, that they translate into various languages, learn by heart, invoke every day in order to uphold or refute the opinions that are being debated. Here are these divine masters of morality whose writings inflame young people for the best that there is, namely vengeance, debauchery, arrogance, and all the vices, in such a way that daily association and seduction finally make them in every way similar to their tutors.19
Studying, translating, learning by heart, quoting: once again, the education described by Tanneguy in his tract is the very one he received from his father. By demolishing the famous Méthode pour commencer les humanités grecques et latines point by point, De futilitate poetices strikes back at the paternal education.
Tanneguy must nonetheless respond to the classic objection from those partisans—if there are any left—who want to defend poetry at all costs: What about Christian poetry? What about the poetry in the Bible itself? Wasn’t poetry “consecrated by God and cultivated by the wisest men, those most respectful of justice?”20 No need to get flustered over details, replies Tanneguy:
It is easy to refute this misleading quibble and destroy the entire sophism. Indeed, those who make this argument manifestly rely too heavily on the ambiguity of the name poet. By this appellation, one refers to a writer whose verse contains a certain number of feet (as was once the case in Greece and Rome) or consists of two, three, or more syllables, the last of which, if the lines are seen in pairs, have the same pronunciation (as is today the case in France, where it is not even rare to give three or four lines the same ending).
Yet far from being contained, constrained, and forced into strict boundaries, as in Greece, Rome, and France, Hebraic poetry was freer, nearly like prose, so that sometimes one counted the feet, sometimes the syllables, sometimes one was satisfied with the similarity of the endings, and sometimes it was enough to stray from the habitual and common way of speaking (communi loquendi consuetudine).21
In other words, one could say that David and Moses were poets, but their writings lacked the formal dimension that is generally considered part of the poet’s work. They were poets in the sense that Cicero is thinking of when he writes that Plato, who wrote in prose, was more of a poet than the “authors of comedies, whose works, other than the fact that they are written in verse, are in no way different from everyday language.”22
Nearly twenty years in advance, these are the very terms of the dispute over Homer that would cause deep divisions among French littérateurs of the early eighteenth century: the translation of The Iliad by Tanneguy’s own sister, Madame Dacier, was attacked as unpoetic for being in prose, and its critics proposed to write a version in verse without even knowing Greek. One sees that the minister from Amsterdam was preemptively taking his sister’s side in this dispute, which would lead to a new definition of poetry, unrelated to verse, and open the way to a new—romantic—conception of literature by preparing for the coming of the prose poem. Anti-literature is often no more than a type of anti-formalism, which can sometimes be a prelude to the appearance of new literary forms.
David and Moses were also not poets in the etymological sense of the term, in other words in the sense of:
he who does, that is to say who invents many things, and consequently who often lies and exaggerates the inventions of others through new lies, by alleging, for example, that it is glorious to take revenge for an injustice received or to deflower a multitude of young girls in a single night, as it is said of Heracles.23
On the contrary, the biblical prophets aim only for saintliness, piety, and truth; David and Moses have nothing in common with Homer and Virgil.
Though he expresses himself under a mask of irony and condemnation, one cannot avoid noticing that Tanneguy the younger takes perverse pleasure in relating the details of Heracles’s sexual exploits—it is said he deflowered forty-nine virgins in a single night24—and that, in contrast, the prudish minister gives short shrift to the horrors described in the Bible, the monstrosities presented there as models of virtue, and the misconduct of David and Solomon. He even overlooks the fact that an erotic poem entitled the Song of Songs is at the very heart of the Old Testament. Fanaticism is rarely in good faith.
Interestingly, Tanneguy establishes an inverse relationship between poetic form and the morality of the content: the more refined, constrained, and complicated the form is, the less moral the content will be—so much so that the very nature of poetry is eventually revealed to be depraved. Formal refinement induces a moral lapse because it comprises an amoral dimension in and of itself: it is not morally correct to devote so much time to an activity as futile and needlessly sophisticated as poetry. The inversion of the scale of aims and priorities involved in the work of poetry, placing what should remain at the bottom at the very top, can only go hand in hand with an inversion of the scale of values in general behavior. There can be no aesthetic order without ethical confusion.
TANNEGUY’S BOOK takes its title from the key word futility, from which fragility, frivolousness, absence of authority, and, finally, lack of truth directly follow. To all appearances lightweight and often ridiculous, this attack by Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger nonetheless aims for the most vulnerable spot. It is easy to caricature poetry and accuse it of deception, lying, and artificial seduction, of being a teacher of vice and error: Tanneguy does not hold back on these criticisms from the anti-literary vulgate, which were heard long before him and would continue to be heard long after. Yet by leveling these charges, the critic continues to grant poetry power and authority, however deviant.
Infinitely more insidious and cruel is the accusation of insignificance implied by the term futility. If Homer and Virgil are futile, there is no need to consider them, even for the purpose of refuting them: it is enough not to mention them. If poetry is speech, there is no more effective way to kill it than to silence it: silence is the acid that leaves no trace, and Tanneguy is a master at using it. Never does he openly and explicitly oppose his father, never does he even mention his name—aside from the title page, in order to distinguish himself from his progenitor. This silence is as powerful as any poison or dagger. One can only learn such perfidy through family life.
Here is the moral of the story—at least the one Tanneguy draws in the conclusion to his lampoon:
One must devote as little effort to reading the poets as possible, that is, only as much as they are necessary for gaining a better understanding of languages (ad linguas melius intelligendas)—they whose life and works are, for the most part, full of acts of infamy and impiousness, and whose daily use weakens the spirits and crushes all the nerves of masculine virtue. Poetry can only be much loved by those who overindulge in their free time, since the enormous energy it demands is used in an obviously criminal way if one produces texts contrary to good moral standards and the fear of God, and in an absurd and nearly profitless manner if the intention is instead to work usefully and in the interest of the state. If, however, one must write in verse, one should follow the example of Moses and David, and it is always much better to pay attention to the meaning rather than the rhythm and the sound structure (vocum structuram). Finally, the time that many spend on vain and harmful cogitation would be better spent on the study of the superior arts, since expending vain efforts only to produce futile or immoral tales and ramblings at the cost of much fatigue is pure madness.25
After the many extreme arguments expressed throughout the tract, this conclusion seems surprisingly moderate: Tanneguy recognizes that poetry can be somewhat useful for learning languages, puts forward a model of writing drawn from the Bible, and admits that poetry sometimes aims to do good, though with meager results. But in fact the principal argument here is of a different stripe. Avoiding the usual rhetoric of anti-literary discourse, which revels in grandiloquence and excess, this argument centers on a pragmatic and, one might venture to say, bourgeois calculation of the advantages and disadvantages of the study of poetry: the bookkeeping of profit and loss.
It is not insignificant that the book was written and published in Amsterdam, an industrious trading city—and by a minister at that. As Max Weber showed, Protestantism played a crucial role in the birth of modern capitalism. Tanneguy the younger’s emigration from France to the Netherlands corresponds to the transition from an aristocratic regime based on lavish spending, of which poetry is the linguistic analogue, to a bourgeois, merchant society attentive to the profitability of industry and exchanges. The only relevant moral code here is that of work: Is it useful? Can one see the results? Is the intended goal worth the effort expended?
Up to this point, the moral condemnation of poetry had been absolute and was based on a dogmatic opposition between good and evil, defined ex cathedra. Now good and evil came to be defined and measured in relative terms: good was assessed according to the amount of evil required to attain it, evil according to the good it could lead to. Categorical denunciations were a thing of the past; now it was enough to compare and calculate. This double-entry bookkeeping is the only language understood by the shopkeeper, the only one heard by a society founded on the pursuit of the greatest profit and the optimization of spending—such as our own, perhaps.
In such a society, it would be counterproductive to threaten novice poets with the suffering of hell in the hereafter: hell always attracts people, if only out of a desire to provoke. One only has to show hell or boredom here on earth, in a literary activity spinning its wheels and having no goal or usefulness: in poetry, the torture of Sisyphus is in the here and now.
And so the underlying principle of this book by Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger consists of one of the most powerful anti-literary diatribes possible, which is also one of those most often heard today. I certainly have qualms about saving it from the oblivion into which it had fallen for more than three centuries, just as a biologist might hesitate before exhuming the plague virus from the ice where it has remained buried for millennia. I can only hope that it does not seize this opportunity to recover its strength.
SUCH AN ATTACK could not go unanswered. A year after publication of Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger’s De futilitate poetices, on Sunday June 29, 1698, the young academic Friedrich Wilhelm Schütz presented a public refutation of it in Leipzig.
How had he become aware of the tract? Although quick dissemination of such a text from Amsterdam to Leipzig would not have been impossible, it may have been aided by a particular set of circumstances. It appears that sometime around 1655, Friedrich Wilhelm’s father, Christoph Georg, a town councilor of the city of Leipzig, had spent some time in Saumur, the very city where Tanneguy Le Fèvre the elder was teaching Greek.26 Since both men were Protestant, it is possible that the Schütz and Le Fèvre families established a friendship at this time, which would have allowed Friedrich Wilhelm to quickly get a copy of Tanneguy the younger’s book and to prepare a response to it only a few months after it was published.
Friedrich Wilhelm Schütz belonged to an honorable Leipzig dynasty, whose members included the illustrious Heinrich Schütz, the most famous musician in Germany and the young man’s great-uncle. In 1696, shortly after turning nineteen, Friedrich Wilhelm had presented a disputation—one dare not say a fiery disputation, given the subject matter—entitled The Cremation of Heretical Books, which suggests that he was already keenly sensitive to the question of freedom of expression and attacks against literature. The disputation had been presented in two parts: the first was of a historical nature and was delivered on January 28, 1696; the second, from the moral perspective, was delivered on December 30 of the same year, in collaboration with Johann Christoph Schwedler, Friedrich Wilhelm’s fellow student at the University of Leipzig.27 The two disputations explicitly displayed the anti-Catholic and anti-papist leanings of the authors, both of whom were students in reformed theology: Schütz would eventually become a minister at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, while Schwedler would become a minister in Niederwiese, in Silesia, and would gain fame for his liturgical hymns.
The line of argument deployed to protest against the burning of heretical books was based on the distinction between a work and its author. How absurd, wrote the two students, to condemn a book because its author has a bad reputation, even if the book itself does not touch on religion. Hadn’t Melanchthon’s Grammar stupidly been burned for the sole reason that its author was a follower of the Reformed religion?
How could one believe that a good book should be destroyed because its author is evil? Who would look away from roses in disgust on account of the fact that they are born of a mother covered in so many thorns? Does Seneca not say, in favor of impartiality, that “one should not be ashamed of a bad writer when he speaks well”?28
The cause defended in 1698 was considerably vaster. In facing Tanneguy the younger, it was no longer only heretical books that had to be defended and saved from the flames, but all of poetry. It is all the more surprising to find that Schütz’s refutation of De futilitate poetices opens with a call for severe punishment:
If the wisest of kings judged that Zoilus deserved to be tortured simply for having slandered Homer, whose statue he attempted to flog with a whip, as reported by Claudius Galenus, what tortures would be worthy of those whose insults and slander tear to shreds every poet, and even poetry itself?29
Could it be that the very flames from which Schütz had tried to save the heretical books were now being stoked for the author of De futilitate? Such intemperate zeal is unexpected on the part of a self-declared opponent of literary cremations. But actually, this threat of torture was not written by Schütz himself: it was an epigraph taken from the Italian humanist Giglio Gregorio Giraldi, whose complete works had just been published in Leiden two years earlier—clearly, the young student and enthusiastic reader was keeping up with the latest in literature.
Zoilus was a grammarian in the fourth century BCE, famous for having publicly criticized the flaws and contradictions in The Iliad and The Odyssey; he was nicknamed the “Homer whipper” (homeromastix) and apparently died a violent death—crucified, burned alive, or thrown off a cliff, depending on the account (however much one dislikes denigrators of poetry, one likes to think he was not subjected to all three methods of execution, either at once or in succession). Were anti-literature to require a patron saint—and a martyr to boot—Zoilus would perfectly fill the bill: as early as Antiquity, his name was used to refer to any excessive and malicious critic.
One should not underestimate the ironic quality of this epigraph being used by a declared champion of the freedom of expression of heretics. Nonetheless, it is not insignificant that the young man is less severe toward enemies of religion than enemies of poetry, as though tampering with poetry were the more fundamental taboo. It is also true that the two previous disputations were primarily aimed at Catholicism and that the heretical books were Protestant books: a good theology student from Leipzig had no choice but to defend them. In the case of poetry, he was speaking from the heart.
Le Fèvre’s tract initially sent Schütz deep into shock, the stages of which he carefully describes at the beginning of his refutation:
Last year, a book was published in Amsterdam entitled On the Futility of Poetry, by Tanneguy Le Fèvre, minister of the word of God. One might well be surprised that the son of the illustrious Tanneguy Le Fèvre and brother of the highly learned Anne Dacier, born into a family so fond of literature and poetry, should choose a radically different path. I admit that as soon as I came upon these pages, I, who have loved verse and poets since childhood, expected nothing more than a joke, a game, or the pranks of an unrestrained intelligence, for I did not think that there existed people who would seriously endeavor to disparage poets or work to undermine the study of verse. I knew, of course, that in some people malice is like a stain and a blot, even when dealing with what is best, but to think that there were men capable of hounding poetry with a hatred strong enough to accuse it of futility was impossible. Yet when I picked up this opuscule again, I soon recognized the author’s hostile intent toward poets and their art. Indeed, I saw that he set out to show that poetry, because it is difficult, because it is based on assiduous reading of pernicious books and proves nearly incapable of producing the slightest fruit, must be avoided by men of letters. Immediately, in response to this outrageous remark, my mind caught fire; I could not bear to see the honor of such a holy and venerable art attacked, and right away, driven by I know not what impulse, I took the opposite side, and, increasingly excited, I finally decided not to leave poetry defenseless and to publicly stand up for it against such an audacious opponent. I put this in writing in the present exercise, in which I tried to show, insofar as I could, all the frivolousness and fickleness of the arrows fired by Le Fèvre, and their complete inability to reach poetry, which emerges safe and sound.30
Here we have the autobiography of an opponent of anti-literature: at first he does not believe what he is reading and thinks he is dealing with a hoax; then he finally has to recognize the attacker’s sincerity, however outrageous, absurd, and monstrous his arguments. His irritation then grows to match the attack’s fundamental inanity and aggressiveness—in general, the more inane an attack, the more aggressive it is. What should he do next? Close the book and do something else, at the risk of letting people believe this nonsense? (One never knows, after all, how gullible readers will be: can one rely on their intelligence and their love of literature?) Or counterattack, at the risk of giving credence to the enemy and granting him more importance than he deserves? Friedrich Wilhelm Schütz hesitates, wrestling with these very questions:
Obviously, I do not doubt that most will consider this work vain and unnecessary, that they will be convinced that no one would applaud the inanities of this Le Fèvre and that there is no need to fear that a single man’s audacity could be enough to remove poetry from the pinnacle of glory to which it has been raised unanimously by the most eminent men in every field. To seek to refute balderdash is to produce more balderdash. Contempt avenges the art of fiction well enough that it does not appear necessary to devote great effort and care to its defense. That is what people will think. And certainly, I could not deny that there will be no one, or very few people, who agree with Le Fèvre’s opinion, and these will only be the enemies of any kind of beauty; I also admit that Le Fèvre’s enterprise is marred by much foolishness; but it is precisely for that reason that it is acceptable to subject the opponent’s arguments to evaluation, so that their futility is brought to light and so that people do not believe—who knows?—that among all these arguments there is a single one likely to weaken a divine science. And if, when Lactantius turns to refuting Epicurus’s balderdash in his treatise on The Works of God, he says he wants to play the fool with the fool, for fear that the latter will otherwise feel too intelligent, what prevents me from being able to balderdash a little myself?31
So many precautions before launching on a point-by-point refutation of Le Fèvre the younger’s foolishness! The audience for this lecture might indeed have considered that it was hardly worth it: the august members of the municipality of Leipzig, the consuls, proconsuls, town councilors, and magistrates for whom the young student’s exercise was primarily intended may have had other concerns than to sit through a long and tiresome defense of poetry; there is more important business to attend to when managing a city.
Yet Friedrich Wilhelm did not consider sparing their patience. The lampoon On the Futility of Poetry had nineteen chapters; its refutation has the same number, to take apart each of the Amsterdam minister’s propositions, without leaving out a single one. To clarify his argument, Schütz notes the title of the corresponding chapter of Le Fèvre’s book in the margin of each of his chapters, in such a manner that the refutation also serves as an objective summary of his opponent’s positions. In other words, a true academic exercise, superbly printed, with its marginal notes, its duly referenced citations, and even—the cherry on top—its concluding corollaries, including:
Without reading the poets, eloquence remains incomplete.
Poets’ fictions are not lies.
Poetry is not older than prose.
It is permissible to stage tragedies and comedies.
To castrate Ancient authors [i.e., to expurgate them] is to put one’s zeal to bad use.
The poet must concern himself with words no less than with meaning.32
There are nine corollaries in this style, as many as there are Muses. The student obviously enjoyed scattering some taunts throughout his text, such as when he criticizes Le Fèvre for the suspect way that he dwells on the poets’ obscenities:
If it is so vile to read indecent verses of this kind, why, I ask, did you, Le Fèvre, read them? Worse, why did you include them in your text? Since you said earlier that no one would be able to convince you to study the Priapus Poems or, similarly, many poems by Martial, who finally succeeded in doing so? For above, on pages 21, 34, and 36, you quote verses that clearly deal with obscene subjects and also make your own book unfit to be read (propter quae nec tuus ipse legi debet liber).33
It’s the old joke of the biter bit—or the censor censored.
Elsewhere, Friedrich Wilhelm defends poetry in an entirely personal, lyrical spirit, such as when he upbraids Le Fèvre for his accusations against poetic beauty, judged to be nothing less than “puerile,” “ridiculous, impious, and criminal”:
You are blind, Le Fèvre, yes, you are blind to all the power of poetry and all its beauty (elegantia)! Indeed, when pleasure (delectatio) is born equally of the meaning and the structure of words (verborum structura), something indescribably extraordinary appears. I do not refer to those privileged joys that only poets experience, when they believe they are rising above the human condition (supra rerum humanarum fastigium) and touching the stars with their sublime foreheads each time they create something that produces within them, through the seductive power of the subject (argumenti suavitate) on the one hand and the softness of the words and the rhythm on the other, an incomparable pleasure; I am referring only to that charm (jucunditatem) that others, whether readers or listeners, experience from these same objects, an absolutely infinite charm that sweeps them away despite themselves.34
One would think one was listening to Valéry speaking about poetic creation and the “pendulum” that endlessly swings between sound and sense to leave the reader in an inexpressible state of perpetually renewed hypnosis and ecstasy.35 Two pages later, Schütz makes a reference to Montaigne’s taste for the Roman poets and for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which the wise man of Bordeaux recommended for children.36
We find in Friedrich Wilhelm Schütz an enthusiasm for all things poetic and a tone of sincerity that betray the author’s youth and make him eminently likeable. I have little in common with this student of Protestant theology and scion of a wealthy family who used his paternal fortune and connections to publish elegant academic booklets and to court the town councilors of Leipzig, yet I cannot help but feel a nearly fraternal communion, across the centuries, with this young and passionate academic who out of pure love of poetry undertook to tilt at the windmills of foolishness, arrogance, and narrowmindedness.37 There was no point in this undertaking: the attacks would die out on their own. But nasty and stupid anti-literature sometimes has the effect of producing a valorous champion of the literary cause—a cause that remains impervious, since it can take care of itself: all that is required is to read the books.
TANNEGUY THE YOUNGER’S lampoon made waves, more so than we might think it would.38 But one does not write an anti-literary diatribe with impunity when one is either the son of a great humanist and translator of poetry or the brother of Madame Dacier. Tanneguy was both at once: all the more reason for his book not to go unnoticed. Which was exactly what he wanted.
There followed what could be called the duel of the sons. In 1747, fifty years after publication of the lampoon, another writer’s son published a riposte. In his Réflexions sur la poésie (Reflections on Poetry), Louis Racine, the youngest child of the playwright Jean Racine, responded to two classic accusations leveled at poetry: “it corrupts hearts with dangerous images,” and “it feeds the mind frivolous fables and fictions.”39 He mentions the most recent attacks, including that of Bossuet, who had accused poets of exclusively seeking to please without any concern for whether what they say is true. Racine notes that Bossuet gave as an example Virgil, who
at times describes in magnificent verse Plato’s system on the system of the world, and at others reels off in beautiful verse Epicurus’s system on the fortuitous concourse of atoms. “It is indifferent to him,” adds M. Bossuet, “whether he is a Platonist or an Epicurean: he has satisfied the ear, he has showed off the beautiful turn of his mind, the beautiful sound of his verse, and the vividness of his expression: that is more than enough for poetry.”40
Then comes the turn of an unidentified Englishman who “has had printed in London, in the last few years, a book whose purpose is to prove that poets are the enemies of reason and morals.”
Finally, Louis Racine addresses “the brother of Madame Dacier” and his De futilitate poetices. De futilitate was still drawing attention: in the century that saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, when progress in industry and the arts was acclaimed everywhere, it was not good to be accused of frivolousness.
In this context, it is symptomatic that Bossuet’s accusation that poetry does not tell the truth no longer took the form, as it had in Plato, of a full indictment of the lies and errors of the poets—they are no longer even worth the trouble. To a certain extent, the question of whether poetry tells the truth seems to have been settled: it is now agreed that one cannot ask poets to do something that they are not capable of, in any case. They are instead reproached for something that is both less serious, because it has a smaller impact, and more discouraging, because it is the ultimate proof that one should not have faith in poets even when it comes to little things: Shouldn’t poets at the very least be expected to take their own work seriously and ensure that it is logical? Yet Virgil, in being now a Platonist, now an Epicurean, according to the circumstances and the poetic effect desired, displays a deplorable inconstancy.
The issue here is no longer the absence of a correspondence between poetry and reality, but poetry’s lack of internal coherence: fundamentally, what is being questioned is not so much the ontological value of poetry (which had already been relinquished) as its ethics. Or: after having lost in the realm of ontology, poetry was now also being defeated in the realm of morality—not the morality of a universal ethics, but that of poetry itself, with which the writer should in principle comply. “A poet is a light being,” as Plato had written long ago: how true!41 And the poet must pay the price for this lightness.
It would take a few more decades for a new conception of poetry to take root, one far removed from the light and frivolous society games criticized by Bossuet and Le Fèvre the younger, a poetry proclaiming absolute seriousness and, above all, sincerity: what would come to be known as romanticism.
While awaiting this aesthetic revolution, Louis Racine devotes a few dozen well-chosen pages to a defense against the accusations of futility and frivolousness, thereby providing a moving record of the poetic and lyrical crisis at the heart of the French eighteenth century—an apologia haunted here and there by the ghost of a playwright father as admired as he is unnamed, whose image stands like a commander at the beginning of the book, as if Réflexions sur la poésie were somehow giving itself the task of paying an impossible debt. The preface concludes with a poignant confession:
When such a modest father was taken away from us by death, I was still at that age when, though one is free with one’s tears, one does not have enough reason to shed them in the case of genuine misfortune.42
He who cried without a reason refused to cry when a reason was given to him: an unforgivable mistake. Réflexions sur la poésie ideally makes up for this deficit of tears, belated amends offered by Louis Racine at the age of fifty-five for the wrong he had done when he was only six.
THE BATTLE BETWEEN Louis Racine and Tanneguy Le Fèvre is the battle of filial appreciation against filial ingratitude. Think, too, of the defense of poetry by Friedrich Wilhelm Schütz: it coincides with his appreciation of a beloved and respected father, as shown by the dedications of his books. Or of Sartre’s The Words, in which keeping literature at a distance is identified with challenging a paternal figure—in this case, the character of the grandfather.
Over and above these four authors’ individual cases, a kind of psychoanalysis of literature takes shape: to attack poets is to want to murder the ancient teachers of humanity; to defend them is to maintain the link with the original language and with tradition and to perpetuate the thread that unites each generation both to the one that preceded it and the one that will follow. How could one avoid seeing the fantasy of killing the father in this primal scene of anti-literature, as experienced by those who received a strong literary education at an early age and eventually turned against it?
MORE GENERALLY, if the accusation of immorality leveled at literature is among those that continue to elicit a response and still today serve to justify the banning of various books, it is because this accusation primarily concerns childhood and education and raises the image of readers who are defenseless before the representation of evil, incapable of opposing it by using their intelligence and their own moral conscience. Anti-literary discourse often supposes that literature initially had an implicitly recognized moral authority that was later rejected, as if literature had not been equal to the task with which it had first been entrusted. The ethical judgment an individual is supposed to be able to exercise in a real situation, faced with flesh-and-blood people, is considered to be lacking when that same person is confronted with a literary text: literature apparently deprives the reader of moral autonomy, which is why readers should be emancipated from literary custody.
If literature really enjoyed such powerful authority, there might be reason to worry; luckily, the very existence of anti-literature proves that the moral emancipation of the reader, which it refuses on principle to acknowledge, is in fact possible.
This is simply how family quarrels work: as long as paternal authority is recognized, teenage angst can always resurface; it is only once that authority is left behind that adulthood begins. There can be no authority without the agreement of those who submit to it, if only to challenge it; anti-literature is often no more than a prolonged fit of teenage angst on the part of certain thinkers. Some say the analyst’s couch might do them good.
YET ONE should not think that these trials of literature on moral grounds were restricted to ancient times or totalitarian regimes. Democracies are not immune to the phenomenon. Even in the most powerful liberal democracy in the world, the United States, one finds books removed from school curriculums, banned from libraries, or, in the best case, simply purged of those expressions or passages considered offensive. And naturally all of this is done to protect children and young people.
This would be a relatively inconsequential matter if the volumes in question were only marginal works or books that were explicitly and intentionally subversive from a moral perspective. It is regrettable that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was not legally published in the United States until 1961—a full twenty-seven years after the first edition was issued in France—and still with considerable trouble. Yet it must be admitted that the book was directly at odds with a certain number of American moral codes governing literary and artistic representation: under such circumstances, the conflict, though unfortunate, was utterly predictable.
Attacks are more unexpected and significantly more damaging when the works targeted are generally considered classics, have long been taught in schools, and have for decades been considered peaks of global literature, but then suddenly spark controversy and are deemed unacceptable: every Homer, every Virgil will eventually give rise to his Tanneguy Le Fèvre.
Works dear to young people often bear the brunt of this multifaceted censorship: look no further than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. Upon publication, both of these seminal works of American literature were reproached for providing young people with bad examples: vulgar, familiar language, explicit references to sexuality, the undermining of so-called family values and conventional social mores.43 Nonetheless, beginning in the 1960s, both works became classics of young people’s literature; they were read and discussed in middle schools and high schools precisely because they allow students to deal with subjects directly relevant to them. This is the way to put literature to good use: not as a compendium of moral and religious precepts that are immediately applicable and transposable to reality, but as a place of reference, exchange, discussion, and debate.
Mark Twain’s and J. D. Salinger’s masterpieces have experienced the paradoxical fate of being included both in school curriculums and on lists of banned books, of being both the most widely read and the most often challenged books—perhaps the most often challenged precisely because they are the most widely read: the more children read the adventures of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield at school or in the library, the more likely it is that some parent will be offended and initiate legal proceedings. Luckily, these attempts at censorship have not always been successful.
Literature’s moral and ideological compliance is a difficult thing to assess, not only because literary works are fundamentally ambiguous, their interpretation constantly shifting and being subject to discussion, but also because dominant ideologies are themselves no less changeable than moral references. For instance, the nineteenth century was scandalized by the rudeness and vulgarity of Twain’s novel: shortly after the novel was published in 1885, the library in Concord, Massachusetts, declared the book unworthy of its oh-so-respectable bourgeois readers and banned it from its shelves.44 This could be termed right-wing, conservative censorship.
A century later, the pendulum had swung the other way and censorship came from the left. If Huckleberry Finn sparks controversy today, it is no longer because of its use of popular vernacular, but because of its treatment of the question of race. The problem is as follows: Does the book denounce the racial prejudices it describes, or does it make them its own? Scholars are still arguing the question.45
Particularly at issue is the repeated use of the term “nigger,” a word that was common in Twain’s time and could then be relatively neutral in value, but which became exclusively pejorative and insulting in the twentieth century. How can we give such a book to today’s children, who could be shocked or disturbed by the word because they were not aware of its history? One of the solutions reached was to bowdlerize the novel and publish a new version, among other expurgated editions, in which the word “slave” was substituted for every occurrence of “nigger.”46 The paradox is that to make the novel more readable and socially acceptable, the editors chose to replace a period term that was more or less neutral, but had racial significance, with a term that has no racial significance, but explicitly refers to an inferior and dominated social condition whose mere existence is today considered intolerable. “Slave” is certainly more offensive than “nigger,” but since there are happily no more slaves in the United States today, no one would feel targeted or offended by the term. The idea is not to improve the book from a moral perspective, but to avoid any misunderstanding on the part of the reader, irrespective of the integrity of the actual novel.
The right solution would instead be to educate children and teach them about the variability of language and judgment. The right solution would be to teach young people to maintain a certain distance from works of literature, to understand that they come from another world, which demands to be studied for what it is, and that these works are not always about us. The right solution would be to allow the texts the freedom to speak for themselves.
Even more recently, the Latin poet Ovid, who was himself exiled by the emperor Augustus because of the licentiousness of his writings, continued to cause a scandal in the United States. In 2015, a student at Columbia University complained that reading passages in The Metamorphoses describing the abductions of Persephone and Daphne had triggered a memory of her own traumatic rape: she now felt unsafe in the classroom.47 There followed a university-wide, then national, discussion over whether the study of classics like The Metamorphoses should receive trigger warnings in curriculums. In this case, what is the happy medium? Where do we draw the line? There are rape scenes in The Metamorphoses, but also scenes of zoophilia, torture, and massacre; in terms of religion, polytheism prevails. In France, I encountered a Muslim student who refused to read Faust because the devil appears in the play.
It is probably too easy to make fun of this trigger warning policy, which aims to spare adult readers from encountering anything they might find shocking, upsetting, or simply vaguely disturbing. After all, this is not a case of actual censorship, but of a pedagogical procedure intended to prevent uncomfortable situations in the classroom and to preserve an atmosphere of trust within the university community. Texts are neither suppressed nor altered, only made optional for those who may not feel strong enough to face them. But such a policy does not have any theoretical limit: if the measurement scale is readers’ varying sensitivity, even the most innocuous text could require a warning, for there will always be someone who might be traumatized by some more or less manifest aspect of a text.
These are cases of something other than individual censorship. If it were only that, these examples would not have a place in a volume whose principle is to avoid anything dealing with censorship of specific works in order to focus on general and absolute condemnations of literature as a whole.
As it happens, the specific condemnations leveled at the works mentioned above entail something other than these works merely being inappropriate in the context of contemporary American society. They are the result of a reductive and castrating vision of literature. They promote an art of language that would no longer be literature such as we know it, as an autonomous and independent art, but a system in which works would ideally limit themselves to providing a pure and, if possible, improved reflection of the society in which they are read. To refuse literature the right to shock, provoke, and make people uncomfortable is to impose upon it the constantly redefined duty of offering readers only what they expect—what they can accept, understand, and absorb. It is to refuse the power of reading to confront us with alterity. It is to demand that literature propose only sameness, that is to say something with which readers can wholly, blindly identify, without calling on their critical and hermeneutic faculties. It is to turn every reader into an eternal minor.
What is rejected here is alterity itself: the alterity of the past, the distant, the ancestors, the neighbors. And the strangest thing is that this rejection of alterity is expressed in the name of respecting the other: Should I force literature into silence and deprive my contemporaries of it just because it does not correspond with my expectations and values and personally disturbs or upsets me?
Ultimately, literary texts are considered the equivalents of sacred texts: they contain every truth and only truth. Literature is seen as the place where beauty, good, and truth come together. In Anglophone countries, a long tradition, notably represented (though to different degrees) by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Matthew Arnold, has established the study of literature as the secular equivalent of reading the Bible: continuing debates about the composition of the canon, particularly in the United States, echo this way of regarding reading as a sacred instrument of intellectual and moral education.
The literary canon has therefore developed on the model of the biblical “canon”—but a canon that is subject to the principle of the freedom of inquiry, in keeping with the tradition of culturally Protestant countries. As Emerson pointed out in “The American Scholar,” every work must be placed on the Procrustean bed of individual inquiry: its value resides in us, in its compatibility with “the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”48
The problem is that literary texts, including those that are apparently the most virtuous, do not always offer examples of good morals. What are we to do with those texts in which crime mixes with virtue, beautiful language with the colloquial, and horror with the sublime? What are we to do with those that precisely do not want to be taken literally or read as gospel, but land before us because tradition has passed them down, because they provide pleasure, hope, or joy, or because of the very fact that they take apart every norm and rebel against everything and everyone? What are we to do with texts that disturb us or make us ill at ease? The truth is that every text does this: if you look at it closely enough, every text carries a force of destabilization.
Literary texts are precisely not the law: Plato was certainly clear that he held that against them. They state neither the truth nor moral goodness. They are also neither the Bible nor the Koran, which require believers to wholly subscribe to their content. Literature, on the contrary, demands distance, a critical gaze, and hermeneutical perspective. Literary texts cannot be assimilated to any others. They come from another world, and that is exactly why we read them: because they avoid every known interpretative framework, and because they enrich us with something other than ourselves.
To stigmatize The Metamorphoses for describing rape scenes or Huckleberry Finn for using the word “nigger” is to attempt to demand from literature something that does not apply to it. It is to ask it for a perfect, irreproachable, unchallengeable sacred text, that is to say, precisely what it is not. Literature exists to fill us with wonder or enthusiasm, to transport us, but also to be discussed, commented upon, and critiqued. It fully participates in the entire system of language exchanges that makes us full-fledged human beings.
From this perspective, the typically American movement to subject the canon to the demands of political correctness or democratic representativeness, while motivated by good intentions, is often the result of a total ignorance of literature’s specificity, which is precisely that it avoids being pinned down. It is a resistant and illegitimate discourse.
To refuse a book the possibility of shocking those who read it is to impose on literature constraints that should not be its responsibility and to deprive it of its ability to bring us the new, the strange, and the unknown, if it is true that the new, the strange, and the unknown, by which I mean the truly new, the really strange, and the genuinely unknown, are necessarily shocking or provocative. In this refusal to grant literature the power to destabilize every value and every certainty, in this requirement imposed on all works of literature to rub their readers the right way and arouse empathy, and in the correlative obligation implicitly foisted on every reader, and particularly on students, to agree with works as if they were sacred texts, one can perceive a negation of literature in terms of what has specifically made it literature since Plato, namely as a weapon of subversion and seduction (in the sense of its etymological root, that is of secession or separation: literature divides). Behind these individual acts of censorship, a more general and timeless force is at work: the very force of anti-literature, which refuses literature the right to exist as literature.
IN A GENERAL WAY, to refuse literature a moral value is to deny the reader the possibility of making an autonomous judgment. This is the case with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his condemnation of the use of La Fontaine’s fables for the moral education of children. To argue his point, he chooses the fable that is the best known and apparently the simplest, The Fox and the Crow, and asks naïve questions about the text. Sometimes the questions are silly and are just used to play to the gallery:
Held in his beak a cheese.
What cheese? Was it a Swiss cheese, a Brie, or a Dutch?49
More often, the issue is realism:
Tempted by the odor of a cheese!
This cheese held by a crow perched on a tree must have quite an odor to be smelled by the fox in a copse or in his hole! Is this the way you give your pupil practice in that spirit of judicious criticism which does not allow itself to be impressed except by real likelihoods and knows how to discern truth from lie in others’ narration?50
One could have said something entirely different, however, and come to the conclusion that, for instance, the cheese in question was a smelly aged Muenster (Camembert did not yet exist). But either because his knowledge of cheese was deficient or because his anti-literary leanings won out, Rousseau chose to accuse the text rather than the cheese. (The latter hypothesis is most likely the right one.)
Elsewhere, it is the poem itself that is deemed to be weak, clumsy, or difficult for a child to interpret:
How charming you are! How handsome you seem to me!
Padding, useless redundancy. The child, seeing the same thing repeated in other terms, learns slovenly speech. If you say that the redundancy is part of the author’s art and belongs to the plan of the fox, who wants to appear to multiply the praises with the words, this excuse will be good for me but not for my pupil.51
Even those parts of the poem that Rousseau recognizes as being well executed are shown to be failures:
He opens his big beak, lets fall his prey.
This verse is admirable. The harmony alone produces an image. I see a big ugly beak opened; I hear the cheese falling through the branches. But this sort of beauty is lost on children.52
Finally, the moral does not escape criticism:
This lesson is doubtless worth a cheese.
This is understandable, and the thought is very good. However, there will still be very few children who know how to compare a lesson with a cheese and who would not prefer the cheese to the lesson. One must, therefore, make them understand that this remark is only mockery. What finesse for children!53
The lesson is clear: in every scenario, whether clumsy or successful, the fable is beyond the understanding of children or, worse, corrupts it. The moral: there is no morality there—at least not in fables, even the simplest ones, and pupils should be kept away from any kind of poetry, which is more likely to lead them to stray from the straight and narrow than to teach them how to behave themselves.
Rousseau’s argument does not lack for finesse or humor in the way it shows the traps awaiting the teacher in every line of the fable. But it is flawed in its manner of exaggerating certain difficulties, of considering them all on the same level, and of proceeding as if they cannot be overcome. Education is aimed precisely at providing the child with the means to resolve problems: if the text had no pitfalls, what could be gained from studying it? Learning demands obstacles—or there is nothing more to be learned.
However, one argument is fundamental: the ambiguity of the moral lesson. Children identify less with the crow than with the fox, who takes advantage of another’s credulity (hence the choice of the cheese rather than the lesson); they see themselves less as grasshoppers than as ants, which greedily attend to their own well-being; they see more advantages in the majesty of the lion, even if it is mixed with injustice, than in the innocence and placidity of the ass: thus the lesson of the fable is lost.54
This reasoning is not without merit, and it is not enough to object that the teacher’s task is precisely to guide the pupil’s reading in the right direction, to correct errors in interpretation, and to help students understand the proper meaning. Even though there is one meaning that is more probable than others, or at least preferable in certain conditions and according to certain parameters, the possibility exists for each reader—Rousseau is not wrong to insist on this—to interpret the tale in a unique way and to see themselves in it differently depending on their mood and the circumstances.
Thus, the most edifying apologue can become a lesson in immorality if the emphasis is put on one character rather than another. Sade appears to have made use of this lesson when he shifted from Justine to Juliette and from the description of the “misfortunes of virtue” to the symmetrical one of the “prosperity of vice”—practically the same fable, but arousing admiration rather than pity. There is a certain instability in fictional projection that is made use of by the best novelists as well as the cleverest fabulists.
Childhood is clearly the major issue here, and enemies of literature are not wrong to focus most of their criticism on the question of its educational value. We all know that it is such a sensitive age, so impressionable and at the same time so wicked, capable of turning the most decent fable into a handbook of deceit. It is more prudent to keep the fable out of children’s hands, or better yet to take away the entire book, or, to be absolutely safe, to lock up the whole library.
“I hate books,” Rousseau finally confesses. “They only teach one to talk about what one does not know.”55 It would have been more accurate to say, “They teach one what one did not know,” which is the definition of what it actually means to learn; but for the author of Émile, there is no knowledge that does not come from experience.
One should acknowledge that for those who want to condemn literature, it is easy to use the example of an immature and ill-intentioned reader. It is hard to imagine what could stand up to such treatment: science, ethics, religion, philosophy—what could avoid becoming bad if it were placed in the wrong hands? Does reality itself escape this criticism? Is it any less ambiguous than fiction, or less easily co-opted?
Rousseau finds the solution in practical education—putting the child in direct contact with the world. He recommends taking a child to see the sun rise. “There is here a half-hour of enchantment,” he writes, “which no man can resist. So great, so fair, so delicious a spectacle leaves no one cold.”56 A melancholy, suicidal, or insomniac person might disagree. Extreme cases? Perhaps, but no less than the malicious and unhinged reader postulated by Émile.
Some will say I’m biased. But no more than Rousseau himself. In this case, literature is like the ass in the fable: innocent and peaceful, it is bound to be the guiltiest—because it is the least able to defend itself, having been stripped of its attributes over so many centuries. An ideal victim, and an ideal culprit too.
CHILDHOOD MUST BE PROTECTED—the childhood of the individual. But it was regarding another childhood—the childhood of humankind, lost for good—that Rousseau launched his first assault against literature; the pedagogical argument would not come until later.
In 1749, the Academy of Dijon selected the following question for its competition: “Has the restoration of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” The philosopher set about crafting a response in the negative; he sent his text to the academy, which awarded him the prize. This was the genesis of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. It was also the real beginning of his career: the discourse made waves, responses were written, the author replied. In a few months, his reputation had been established.
Diderot spread the rumor that he himself had directed Rousseau, who was hesitating over which position to take in his entry to the competition: “There is no need to waver, I told him, you will take the position that no one will take. —You’re right, he answered me, and he worked accordingly.”57 It was to be a discourse against literature. Still open to doubt are the truthfulness of the anecdote and the decisive nature of Diderot’s intervention; less puzzling, however, is the paradoxical nature of the discourse. Was it really as paradoxical as Rousseau and Diderot claimed? If that had actually been the case, the Academy’s question would not have been the topic of the competition, and Rousseau would not have won the prize.
In fact, mistrust of the moral value of letters was in the air—a real cliché of anti-literature. One need only think of Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger or Bossuet, and to the objections to their arguments that Louis Racine still felt it necessary to make in 1747.58 One also need only think of Plato—but we’ll come back to this later.
It is true that Rousseau did not pull any punches: according to him, far from contributing to the purification of morals, the sciences and the arts had had the opposite effect. The progress brought about by the restoration of letters in the Renaissance had only been superficial, exclusively affecting appearances; in reality, letters provoke the degeneration of morals, today just as in Antiquity.
This was the case in Rome, which began to decay with the first appearance of Latin poetry:
It was not till the days of Ennius and Terence that Rome, founded by a shepherd, and made illustrious by peasants, began to degenerate. But after the appearance of an Ovid, a Catullus, a Martial, and the rest of those numerous obscene authors, whose very names are enough to put modesty to the blush, Rome, once the shrine of virtue, became the theater of vice, a scorn among the nations, and an object of derision even to the barbarians.59
The same was true of China and its learned Mandarins:
There is in Asia a vast empire, where letters are held in honor, and lead to the highest dignities in the state. If the sciences improved our morals, if they inspired us with courage and taught us to lay down our lives for the good of our country, the Chinese should be wise, free and invincible. But, if there be no vice they do not practice, no crime with which they are not familiar; if the sagacity of their ministers, the supposed wisdom of their laws, and the multitude of inhabitants who people that vast empire, have alike failed to preserve them from the yoke of the rude and ignorant Tartars, of what use were their men of science and literature? What advantage has that country reaped from the honors bestowed on its learned men? Can it be that of being peopled by a race of scoundrels and slaves?60
Sparta won because, alone in Greece, it did not engage in the delicacies of the arts. Letters only teach laxness, hypocrisy, and deference to the powerful. Rousseau claims that they are (to use Le Fèvre’s term) purely futile: “Your children will be ignorant of their own language, when they can talk others which are not spoken anywhere. They will be able to compose verse which they can hardly understand.”61
In this century of industry, poetry distracts from real work and actual enterprises: “A man who will be all his life a bad versifier, or a third-rate geometrician, might have made nevertheless an excellent clothier.”62 A convincing argument—at least among bourgeois, industrious families. But is it admissible from the future apologist for the state of nature, for whom “the odds are a hundred to one that he who first wore clogs was worthy of punishment, unless his feet hurt”?63 In this case, if Rousseau had been consistent, he would at least have given poetry credit for the fact that if the inventor of clogs had been a poet, he would never have become a clog maker.
The philosopher went so far in his violent attack on letters as to praise the burning of books. First, to note that the barbarians only abstained from the practice in order to weaken their enemies:
When the Goths ravaged Greece, the libraries only escaped the flames owing to an opinion that was set on foot among them, that it was best to leave the enemy with a possession so calculated to divert their attention from military exercises, and keep them engaged in indolent and sedentary occupations.64
Next, to regret that the pope had not personally burned the library of Alexandria rather than leaving this honor to the caliph:
It is related that the Caliph Omar, being asked what should be done with the library at Alexandria, answered in these words. “If the books in the library contain anything contrary to the Alcoran, they are evil and ought to be burnt; if they contain only what the Alcoran teaches, they are superfluous.” This reasoning has been cited by our men of letters as the height of absurdity; but if Gregory the Great had been in the place of Omar, and the Gospel in the place of the Alcoran, the library would still have been burnt, and it would have been perhaps the finest action of his life.65
It is hard to know which to admire more: Rousseau’s irony or his cynicism. He later claimed that he had not suggested “overthrowing existing society, burning libraries and all books,” or “destroying colleges and academies.” He justified himself: “I have seen the evil and tried to discover its causes: others, more daring or more foolish, may seek to find the cure.”66 A poor justification, tantamount to admitting that the only solutions could come from recklessness or madness, and to regretting that it was impossible to hold the book-burnings that he was accused of wanting to organize.
What inconsistency, what fragile suppositions, what unlikely historical simplifications Rousseau deploys! But also what vigor, what animosity, what resentment. The Discourse is both a masterpiece of rhetoric and the tomb of history and logic; for in truth, it must be said, without the arts and sciences, what evidence of virtue would have been preserved? Would we even know what it was? The same goes for vice: the periods and civilizations we believe to be free of any depravity are highly likely to be those whose archives have not been preserved or which never even kept archives and were idealized after the fact. It is too easy to imagine that they were better than those that succeeded them; in all likelihood, they were only more ignorant and less self-aware, less able to make moral distinctions and less concerned with leaving a written trace of their existence. Rousseau’s entire reasoning is based on the fundamental inconsistency that involves concluding that the absence of documents means the absence of vice, as though virtue lay strictly in ignorance—which is essentially the philosopher’s central thesis, but is a circular argument in terms of the question asked.
This can be recognized as a final development of the Pauline ethics partially inherited by the philosopher from Geneva: it is written law that creates sin, and spontaneity is always good in the state of grace (which in Rousseau becomes the state of nature, before the expulsion from Eden). As a matter of principle—or dogma—letters are the foundation of sin.
It is more than a little paradoxical that the virtue so highly praised in the Discourse ultimately comes down to fervor in combat and is measured by the number of battles won. The least peaceful of virtues, then, and the least compatible with the state of nature, the least Rousseauist, though undoubtedly the most virile: pure virtus in the etymological sense. (It should be mentioned that the question asked by the Academy of Dijon focused on morals, which is not exactly the same thing as virtue.) In contrast, letters belong in the realm of laxness, weakness, and femininity—a caricature that reflects the characteristic gendering of anti-literary discourse. As we have seen in the Second Trial, one still found traces of this in the twentieth century in C. P. Snow.
This is far from the only contradiction displayed by the Discourse’s author, the principal one being that in order to condemn letters he deploys every resource of eloquence, at which he excels. His replies to his opponents provide abundant examples, always to his advantage. There is no better weapon against letters than letters themselves: this duplicity may be the worst criticism that can be leveled at them.
Since he was unable to physically do away with all the literature that preceded him, Rousseau would later write The New Heloise and his Confessions in a bid to create a new kind of literature that was free of hypocrisy and closer to the truth of feelings: here, anti-literature is no more than a prelude to a revolution in discourse—a revolution that would be called romanticism and was destined for a great future. The declared disconnect between letters and morals and, in parallel, the detachment of literature from life, prefigure, in an inverse manner, the future developments of art for art’s sake and the independence of literature: one can see the entire future of literary art in the nineteenth century implicitly take shape in the anti-literary discourse of Rousseau, as well as in Bossuet and Le Fèvre the younger.67
Despite his hatred of books, Rousseau would continue to write, more than ever, in fact, and would justify this activity throughout his career, simultaneously finding in it his punishment and the only consolation for his existence. His condemnation of letters applies only to the common people, he explains, and the problem is that all of society wants to learn literature, when only an intellectual and moral elite should have access to it: sometimes anti-literature is a form of aristocratism, even on the part of the thinker behind The Social Contract.68
ROUSSEAU WAS SORRY that there were no book-burnings but denied having suggested any should be organized—an unexpected example of casuistry on the part of the scourge of hypocrisy. Others did not have his scruples.
On Tuesday, February 7, 1497, the eve of Ash Wednesday, the usual Mardi Gras celebrations did not take place in Florence. The previous Sunday, Fra Domenico da Pescia, a companion of Savonarola’s, had inveighed from the pulpit against books in Latin and in the vernacular, as well as artistic representations of any kind: the anathema had been pronounced.
On Tuesday, February 7, then, thousands of children (who had long been recruited by the Franciscans, as they are today by terrorists of every stripe) streamed through the city, knocking on the doors of private homes and demanding that their inhabitants hand over any object likely to be used sinfully: statues, paintings, jewels, wigs, veils, perfumes, mirrors, dice, playing cards, masks, and musical instruments, as well as, of course, books of Latin and Italian poetry, including those by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, to mention only the most illustrious. It is said that Botticelli contributed a few of his paintings.
On the Piazza della Signoria, a huge pyramid of books and other contraband was erected with eight faces, rising fifteen levels, twenty meters (sixty-five feet) tall and equally wide, with a monstrous image of Satan looming over it. It was set on fire and burned merrily into the night, to the sound of the children singing canticles. That very morning, thousands of Florentines had received communion at the cathedral, abjured every pleasure, and sworn perpetual chastity, even though some were already married. “It was as if,” said an eyewitness, “the angels had come to live with men, and that was indeed the case.”69 Having gotten rid of all this immorality, Florence was able to observe Lent with dignity, in the holy austerity of the ignorant, the brutish, and the illiterate. Oh the wonders of virtue!
This “bonfire of the vanities” (rogo della vanità) is the most famous book-burning in history, but neither the only one nor the first—nor, sadly, the last. It is also the most emblematic, for the role that children played in the proceedings: by finding the noblest of its pretexts in the protection of children, the accusation of immorality leveled at literature keeps readers of all ages ipso facto in the grips of an eternal infancy. Many crimes against the mind have been committed in the name of pedagogy and purity. And many continue to be committed, by the best-intentioned souls. Real or imagined threats justify every prohibition, and the supposed victims are all too often the first executioners.
A little over a year later, on May 23, 1498, Savonarola and his acolytes were also burned, on the same Piazza della Signoria, though it was no doubt a less charming sight. It should be noted that their executions were not carried out in the name of literature: popes burn people for more serious reasons, and while literature may be immoral, it does not hold a grudge.
SAVONAROLA WAS NOT AN ISOLATED accuser: since Mussato, Petrarch, and Boccaccio had advocated the reading of the Ancients, the new humanism was a constant subject of controversy among clerics. Should one encourage the reading of the pagan authors, at the risk of endangering the teachings of the church?70 In 1455, the bishop of Verona, despite his reputation for encouraging the development of letters, thought it wise to oppose certain overly zealous partisans of the Ancients by coming up with two long speeches, “Against the Poets.” For it was poets who were directly targeted, rather than orators and philosophers, whose works, on the contrary, were recommended by the prelate.
As for the poets, the condemnation was absolute:
There has never been a time when poets were not scorned, disdained, or rejected; at no time, in no country have they ever been able to obtain the slightest dignity, a dignity that all the other arts, on the other hand—this is an established fact—obtained or could obtain.71
The bishop was certain of his stance, and it’s a good thing for him and for the church that there is no doctrine of infallibility to protect such nonsense, for all this was obviously wrong, completely wrong: there are countless examples throughout history of cities honoring poets, from Pindar to Sophocles, and from Mussato to Petrarch. But the good prelate did not care: what was important to him was to remind people of the profound immorality of all poets, starting with Orpheus, the very first poet, but also the inventor of pederastic (paedicaria) and sodomitic infamy (turpitudo sodomitica), which he had the misfortune of introducing to Greece and, consequently, to Italy and throughout the world:
Who could still believe that he was born of the gods, he who instituted for his own gods a cult so abominable, he who introduced debauchery so horrifying and even so contrary to natural dignity and the propagation of mankind?72
As I have earlier had occasion to note, anti-literature has always been highly compatible with homophobia, all the way through the twentieth century.
The most paradoxical thing is that these lectures against poetry exclude two, and only two, authors from general disgrace—Horace and Virgil, neither of whom is particularly known for the purity of his morals, and whose works display many examples of activities against nature, to use the excellent bishop’s words. It was necessary to compromise with the humanist movement, and Virgil had already long been considered a precursor of Christianity. The defense of morals does not make the partisans of anti-literature any better readers or any more consistent.
THE CONDEMNATION of literature in the name of morality goes back at least as far as Xenophanes of Colophon and Heraclitus of Ephesus.73 Yet it was Plato who would establish himself as the grand inquisitor and The Republic as the bible of anti-literature through the centuries. Bossuet, Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger, Rousseau, and even Savonarola were no more than epigones—Savonarola’s only advantage was that he exercised power and was able to get a lot done in a short time.74
We have seen that Plato criticizes poets for not telling the truth. If at times they do tell truths, those truths are ones that should not be made public, which is even worse. For not everything about the gods should be told. An example is Cronus’s rebellion against his father Uranus, which is told by Hesiod with plenty of scabrous details—most notably, an emasculation by scythe followed by disposal of the genitals in the sea. Regardless of its veracity, the story is not universally comprehensible; its interpretation can lead to confusion, and it offers a poor example of filial piety.75 Those most likely not to understand the tale of Cronus are children, who, according to the philosopher, are incapable of judging “what is allegory (huponoia) and what is not”:
What they take into their opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable. Perhaps it’s for this reason that we must do everything to ensure that what they hear first, with respect to virtue, be the finest told tales for them to hear.76
This is the first time in the history of anti-literature that childhood is invoked; going forward, it will rarely be left out. For in anti-literary argumentation the child is the ideal figure of the reader: an unemancipated reader, lacking judgment and unable to think independently. This view recognizes that literature is an invincible but poorly utilized authority, which should be replaced by a different one.
However old they are, citizens of Socrates’s republic are moral and intellectual minors, under the guardianship of the city. This guardianship extends to poetry itself, which is censored because of the danger it poses to general morals. Poets are wrong to show heroes and, even more so, gods, who laugh and cry or are intemperate or greedy. They must be represented as impassive, like sages; this is the only example that should be given.77 Poets are also wrong to describe Hades as a frightening place, thus weakening the courage of the citizens, who should always be ready to die for the state and for their freedom.78 This is why it is important for the republic to exercise moral censorship of artists and poets, including by forbidding them to practice their profession; the well-being of the city demands it.79
It is no accident that poetry is dangerous; it is dangerous by nature: “the more poetic [the poets] are, the less should they be heard by boys and men” because they are all the more persuasive.80 Socrates also condemns imitative poetry in general, which tends to give more importance to the representation of disorderly acts than to acts that are rational, prudent, and peaceful; the latter are “neither easily imitated, nor, when imitated, easily understood, especially by a festive assembly where all sorts of human beings are gathered in a theater,” in a state of mind not inclined to moderation.81 The wise man would make an unsatisfactory hero for the members of the audience, who on the contrary want violence, passion, pain, fury—something to move them to the depths of their being, without restraint.
For a poet, nothing is easier to portray than madness. Here he is, encouraging the part of each audience member’s soul that is most irrational instead of dealing with the reasonable part, producing “a bad regime in the soul of each private man,” “just as in a city when someone, by making wicked men mighty, turns the city over to them and corrupts the superior ones.”82 All those who provoke sadness, laughter, or erotic pleasure through imitation disrupt the audience member’s morality, “fostering and watering [these afflictions] when they ought to be dried up, and setting them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled so that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more wretched.”83
It is unacceptable for poets to create in each citizen so many poorly run little republics, each of which is headed for ruin. Like states within the state, they dissolve the latter’s power. The Platonic homology between the citizen and the city, both formed according to the same model, matches moral condemnation and political indictment, and the verdict is incontrovertible: the imitative poet who writes epics, tragedies, and comedies must be banished, and “only so much of poetry as is hymn to gods or celebrations of good men should be admitted.”84 In other words, only those poems that are the least dangerous morally and the best suited to help those in power maintain control.
If this were a question of restoring the sumptuous lyricism of Pindar or Alcaeus, why not? But one has to be realistic: over the course of history, the Platonic program would far more often produce an official literature—Soviet or Sulpician, it’s all the same—that is, monotonous, without passion or sincerity. This literature is not necessarily more truthful than the other, but it uses lies for the benefit of the state. When it is given the means of coercion—God forbid!—the moral condemnation of literature inevitably turns to ideological and political subjugation.85
PLATO’S WARNING against the moral danger of poetry (or the warning he put in Socrates’s mouth) did not remain unanswered for long. The response that was the most beautiful and most intelligent, as well as the most ironic, came from his favorite disciple, Aristotle. On at least three occasions, the philosopher of the Lyceum set forth a theory that directly countered his master’s propositions. From this perspective, the Poetics can be described as an anti-Republic.
In the third book of The Republic, Socrates reproaches poets and prose writers for showing that “many happy men are unjust, and many wretched ones just, and that doing injustice is profitable if one gets away with it, but justice is someone else’s good and one’s own loss.” He adds: “We’ll forbid them to say such things and order them to sing and to tell tales about the opposites of these things”—a simple, quick way of dealing with the problem.86
But is there actually a problem, and is the suggested solution really so effective? According to Aristotle, in the Poetics, the issue is far more complex than Plato is willing to admit: tragedy’s function is not to portray heroes in a certain state—happy, unhappy, or whatever it may be. Tragedy does not describe a fixed state; it describes a change of state, from happiness to misfortune or vice versa. If this change should purely and simply reproduce the moral norm, tragedy would be completely lacking in interest.
Showing a villain falling from happiness into adversity, as The Republic recommends, would not cause spectators to feel any emotions specific to tragedy: neither pity, for pity is extended only to victims of an undeserved misfortune, nor fear, which is aroused by the misfortunes of someone similar to one’s self, and spectators generally do not consider themselves similar to villains. The virtuous plot dictated by Socrates would not have any moral use, because no one would be interested in it.
In contrast, Aristotle stresses the importance of choosing a hero who is ethically compatible with the members of the audience—neither perfectly good, nor perfectly bad—in such a way as to allow for identification. This hero must become a victim of misfortune as a result of some mistake he makes, but a mistake whose effect is disproportionate to the character’s responsibility, in order, once again, to preserve the feelings of fear and pity.87 This is Aristotle’s first reply to Plato.
The second reply contradicts Socrates’s entire indictment of the devastating effects of imitative poetry, which is alleged to engage the irrational part of the soul to the detriment of its rational part.88 Aristotle’s retort has a name as famous as it is misunderstood: catharsis. “Tragedy,” writes Aristotle, “is an imitation accomplishing through pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”89 In other words, the pity and terror provoked by poetry are not its final products—if this were the case, it would indeed be regrettable, for they are bad passions. Instead, these are inevitable but intermediate stages of the tragic process, at the end of which the audience member is emotionally and physiologically improved. For Aristotle, the simultaneously cognitive and humoral mechanism by which catharsis is carried out in concrete terms rests on the necessary complementarity of fear and pity: what Socrates considers the tragedy’s most unforgivable flaws are nothing less than the actual remedy.90
Ultimately, perhaps the best response to Plato is to go on the offensive and show that he is guilty of the same failings that he accuses poets of. This is exactly what Aristotle does in his Rhetoric: he lists the different types of comparisons that can be used in making a speech and points out that prose must generally avoid them, or else it risks becoming poetry. Several examples are cited, four of which happen to be drawn from The Republic.91 And the last comparison is the very one Plato used to disparage poetry itself, accusing it of owing its charm to superficial embellishments, like a face that is without real beauty but is enhanced by the fleeting, fragile allure of youth:
For when the things of the poet are stripped of the colors of the music and are said alone, by themselves, … they … resemble the faces of the boys who are youthful but not fair in what happens to their looks when the bloom has forsaken them.92
With this description of faces, Plato’s disciple catches his master in the act of poetry just as the master is accusing poetry of adorning itself in deceptive colors. The irony is rich. Aristotle uses the opportunity to remark that the Platonic indictment of poetry is the work of a poet in disguise, who is using authoritarian means to substitute his own discourse for that of his colleagues, rather than acting like a true philosopher and impartially thinking about the positive and negative aspects of the art form he is attacking.
To justify his disagreements with his own master, the author of the Poetics calls himself a friend to Plato, but even more so to truth.93 He is no less a friend to poetry.
ARISTOTLE DEFENDED the art of poetry by putting forward not only psychological arguments, but physiological ones. This is an entire vein of discourse on literature that today seems to have dried up: the ideas of doctors, or those claiming to be doctors, regarding the organic effects of written works. Looking back, it is difficult to imagine the influence of this line of thinking, for literature and the body now seem like completely separate worlds. But this was not always the case: in the eighteenth century, the medical profession did not hesitate to address the question of literature, regularly blaming the reading of maudlin novels for causing bodies to become weak and feminized.94
At the tail end of the century, Kant criticized novels for making female readers—women were those most affected—perpetually distracted, and for exacerbating memory loss:
This practice in the art of killing time and making oneself useless to the world, while later complaining about the brevity of life, is one of the most hostile attacks on memory, to say nothing of the mental disposition to fantasy that it produces.95
Could the novel be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease? Here’s a hypothesis that contemporary researchers have probably not considered exploring.
Kant’s argument is the following: unlike the representations made by a sequence of real events, characterized by their logical and cohesive (conjunctim) character, fictional objects appear scattered (sparsim) and disrupt the unity of understanding (Verstandeseinheit) in such a way that the mind of the reader—most often, that of the female reader—gets accustomed to a state of perpetual distraction, which is harmful.96
One could use the same points to make the opposite argument, namely that the scattering due to fiction forces the mind into a state of tension, creating a capacity to generate coherence that is not exercised by more cohesive discourses that lead the reader by the hand and describe reality as it is. From a single argument, one can draw two equally probable, but opposite consequences.
Which one should you choose? It couldn’t be simpler: all it takes is an inclination for the anti-fiction side, as a matter of principle. Anti-literature is often merely the product of a certain intellectual laziness and adherence to general opinion, even on the part of philosophers in Königsberg.
Kant’s attack was neither the first nor the last to accuse novels of disconnecting readers from reality: there had been Don Quixote, there would be Madame Bovary, and criticism of fiction was commonplace from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. However, one aspect of Kant’s criticism is specific to him: it is the well-organized world of the critic of pure reason, arranged in its carefully labeled boxes, just like the critic himself, an obsessive man with excessively hygienic daily habits, from sunup to sundown, taking meals and walks at fixed times.97 This world and this critic both so set in their ways had difficulty coming to terms with texts that disturbed such a fine orderly existence and promoted the scattering of the mind. The memory lapse feared by Kant is the loss of self-control and the failure to control the world, or else the wind blowing through the open windows into a neat and tidy Prussian home: yet how beautiful it can be when literature blows your papers all over the place.
LITERATURE (in the widest sense, as the practice of texts) is harmful to the body: doctors recognized as much even in Antiquity; it had already become a commonplace.98 In the first century CE, for instance, Celsus considered that the study of literature (litterarum disciplina) was “necessary for the mind, and at the same time bad for the body.”99
“Weak people,” he adds, “among which one must include a large proportion of city-dwellers as well as nearly all those who take an interest in letters, require more [medical] examination, so that care can restore what their physical constitution and their place of residence or study deprives them of.”100 Indeed, the development of cities and the literary lifestyle made the invention of medicine inevitable; knowledge of medicinal plants and traditional remedies had previously been sufficient to maintain one’s health.101
Does the Roman doctor recommend returning to a state of nature, as Rousseau later did? Far from it, for miraculously, the remedy is found in the ailment: according to Celsus, we owe the development of medicine to literary studies, not only because medicine aims to cure men of letters of their specific ailments, but because medicine itself takes root in the study of texts, in reflection and contemplation: the best doctors have always been men of letters.102
Even more surprising is that while literature invented the medical arts, it sometimes also serves as medicine: Celsus refers to numerous medical problems that can be treated by the prescription of readings, either to be read aloud by the patient, in the case of respiratory or digestive pathologies, or to be read to the patient by someone else, in the case of certain types of madness—the reader in the latter case must deliberately include errors while speaking, in order to arouse the patient’s attention and provide a distraction from the mania.103
In the eyes of this great doctor, letters are the perfect pharmakon, in the full ambiguity of the term—sometimes a poison, sometimes a remedy—a reasonable position one would like to find more often among the denigrators of literature, rather than their complacent definitions of the ideal opponent. But it is true that to file an indictment on moral charges, a tendency to simplification and dubious intellectual ethics are great advantages.