Fourth Trial: Society

The Hatred of Literature - William Marx 2015

Fourth Trial: Society

Dreams of book-burning. What mandate for writers? The ticket clerk and The Princesse de Clèves. Against obligatory reading of masterpieces. When a princess made a president suffer. An enigma of literary history. Cultural knowledge questions. De minimis non curat praetor. Madame de La Fayette, here we are! France, a literary nation. Mea culpa. Five unhappy Proustians sitting at a table. The hatred of literature! “The bigwigs shun it.” The poet and the soldier-king. The vengeance of a king. A brief appearance by the emperor. Variations on “If I had children.” Ban on studying grammar. The hatred of books and the scribbler’s trade. An uneducated riding master. Goodbye to poetry and the anti-novel. Green hat of the poets and yellow star. A final solution. Anti-literature pokes fun at anti-literature. The attack of the sociologists. Birth of cultural studies. An objective anti-literary collusion. Literature as a tool for segregation. Critique of the school of the republic. Democratic and aristocratic anti-literature. Literature is always wrong.

IT IS EASILY CONCEIVABLE that the trial of literature in the name of truth or morality could, as a last resort, lead to its removal from society, if what is real and what is good are considered important.

Thankfully, book-burnings and the exiling of poets have more often been fantasized about than put into practice. Anti-literature is most of the time merely an intellectual exercise or a knee-jerk rehearsal of platitudes handed down through a multi-millennial tradition. The stakes rarely go beyond the dividing up of territory between competing disciplines and art forms; the social impact of these debates is ordinarily limited to how much room literature is given in institutions or in education. Taken individually, these consequences are minimal. In the long term, however, the effects accumulate, and they are liable to lead to large-scale developments.

EVERY TRIAL BROUGHT against literature is bound to have a social element. In this final chapter, however, the angle of attack changes, as does the nature of the trial. Literature’s social function is no longer marginal; it is questioned head-on. The subject of debate here is the ability of writers to express the aspirations, needs, and ideals of their society, to serve as its voice and faithfully represent it, in its complexity and diversity, or, in a narrower sense, their aptitude to incarnate the interests and values of a specific category or class of the population.

This purely social dimension of literary activity varies according to period, country, and regime. As demonstrated by Tocqueville, it adapts to various conceptions of society, whether democratic or aristocratic.1 But, whatever the political regime concerned, the crux of the matter is the expressive or representative value attributed or not attributed to the literary arts, and whether the role of writers as the voice of the people is recognized or rejected.

Literature faces great expectations in this department; the disappointments are no less sizable.

ON FEBRUARY 23, 2006, in Lyon, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s minister of the interior and a candidate for president, took the stage at a political rally:

The other day, I was entertaining myself—you get your entertainment where you can—by looking at the syllabus for the examination for administrative officers. Some sadist or imbecile—I’ll let you be the judge—had included among the requirements that candidates would be tested on The Princesse de Clèves. How often have you asked a ticket clerk what she thinks of The Princesse de Clèves? What a spectacle that would be.2

Sarkozy went on to conclude that the recruitment and promotion of civil servants should be based on experience and merit rather than on their ability to stuff their heads with useless cultural knowledge.

On June 10, 2006, while addressing new members of his party in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy told the story a little differently:

The other day I was looking at something fascinating: the syllabus required to be promoted from an administrative clerk to a chief officer. Would you believe that some sadist had included a question in the syllabus asking whether the candidate had read The Princesse de Clèves?

How often have you gone up to the counter in a government building and asked the clerk if she’s read The Princesse de Clèves? At any rate, I read it so long ago that there’s a good chance I would have failed the exam.

But put yourself in the shoes of this forty-year-old man or woman who has a job and a family, and on top of that has to study for exams to be promoted to a superior rank—do you think they have time for that?3

This heart-wrenching picture is enough to bring tears to your eyes: the forty-year-old mother reading Madame de La Fayette in one hand while preparing a meal for her children with the other—a twenty-first-century version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Surely, international conventions will soon ban obligatory reading of masterpieces as inhumane and degrading treatment.

Two years later, having been elected president of the republic, Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a statement on the modernization of public policy and reform of the state. Once again, he emphasized the importance of being able to obtain a professional promotion without having to “recite The Princesse de Clèves from memory.”4

That summer, while addressing a group of young people during a visit to a summer camp, he proposed that civil service examinations recognize volunteer experience:

In terms of human richness, of commitment to help others, why shouldn’t it be taken into account? It’s just as valuable as knowing The Princesse de Clèves by heart.

I mean, I have nothing against it … I mean … OK, I mean … (Embarrassed.) The fact is, The Princesse really made me suffer. (Big smile, beaming with satisfaction.)5

The room erupts into laughter—though, it must be said, only the adults laugh, for the young people visible in the background do not seem to have the slightest idea what Sarkozy is talking about, either because they aren’t aware of the president’s obsession with the novel, or, more likely, because its title, mentioned at random, means nothing to them.

In this strange statement about youth and popular education, the speaker paradoxically proposes to scale back on the transmission of knowledge before an audience of people who don’t know a thing about the culture they might be deprived of and therefore do not understand what they are being asked to relinquish. Yet this remark established The Princesse de Clèves as a commonplace of the president’s discourse, a rallying symbol and a sign of tacit political consent that would enable the orator to express confessions and comments to his audience in theatrical asides.

To listen to Nicolas Sarkozy, one would think the civil service examination requirements regarding Madame de La Fayette’s novel had grown inordinately over a two-year span. Early in 2006, candidates were vaguely asked about the novel. Four months later, they were asked if they had read it. By 2008, it was lock, stock, and barrel: candidates had to recite all two hundred pages by heart. This was the product of a purely rhetorical snowball effect, with each allusion to The Princesse de Clèves going one better than the last in a deliberately self-referential gesture aimed at building rapport with the public: another two years and the examination juries would probably have required each candidate to produce a four-hundred-page exegesis and recite the novel forward, then backward, while hopping on one foot.

Meanwhile, the secretary of state for public service discreetly played along in the background. On November 20, 2007, during a televised interview, he explained that one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s assistants had been asked: “Who wrote The Princesse de Clèves?” And added: “That’s humiliating for all low-level civil servants.”6 (It was apparently not a problem that his statement automatically defined an entire category of the population as uncultivated.)

Speaking directly to the interviewer, who had just been identified as a recent graduate of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, the secretary of state concluded: “You may be the only Frenchman able to answer that question”—a sentence fated to remain deeply enigmatic, for the interview immediately shifted to another topic.

At this point, the television audience and my readers might ask themselves whether the crisis in the French education system was so severe that one had to have studied at the École Normale Supérieure—or even then, to be that one special graduate—to know that The Princesse de Clèves was written by Madame de La Fayette, a fact found in every encyclopedia and literature textbook.

The answer to this nagging question would come three months later: in February 2008, on the same television station, speaking to the same journalist, the same secretary of state was serving up the same fare and taking advantage of the opportunity to explain his indignation. According to him, historians do not agree on the actual identity of the author of The Princesse de Clèves: they aren’t sure whether it was Madame de La Fayette or Monsieur de La Rochefoucauld. Isn’t it appalling to ask a mere assistant her opinion on the matter?7 The secretary of state would later add that these are “pathetic questions, questions of pure elitist knowledge,”8 that do not belong in an examination for public service. This was the real “scandal,” the real “waste.”9

At the same time, a report was commissioned on “the content of civil service entrance examinations,” the primary aim of which was to criticize the principle of testing general culture. To prove they had a sense of humor, the report’s authors dedicated it “to Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette (1634—1693), and to The Princesse de Clèves (1678), without whom this report would never have seen the light of day.”10 These authors obviously did not share the secretary of state’s doubts regarding the identity of the novel’s author.

And how could they, given that this is a discussion in which only specialists are involved? No examiner in her right mind would ask a question about The Princesse de Clèves that required a candidate in a civil service examination to be aware of a scholarly debate on whether or not La Rochefoucauld participated in writing the novel. The secretary of state had had to draw on the full resources of his hypocrisy to pretend to interpret the question to Sarkozy’s assistant this way, with the single aim of coming to the head of state’s rescue in the Princesse de Clèves controversy and providing his indignation with the legitimacy it so sorely lacked.

FUNDAMENTALLY, the entire debate focused on a single question: what body of knowledge and experience should a French citizen share with other citizens in order to hold a position as a civil servant with dignity and without misunderstanding, whether as a mere clerk or as an administrative assistant?

It would be difficult to live in a country or a community of any type and hold any professional position without a modicum of the kind of cultural grounding that makes it possible to live together, without a body of shared references that allow dialogue and mutual understanding. No one would deny that practical knowledge and experience should come first; the examinations emphasize them. Yet is that what we should limit ourselves to?

An ancillary question: Can literature itself be extracted from this common frame of reference?

Minimal knowledge of French history—such as knowing the date of the French Revolution—does not seem like an extravagant stipulation. Would a president of the republic dare to take umbrage at that? And if knowing the date of the French Revolution seems like an acceptable requirement, why shouldn’t one have to know the great works of literature that reflect the republic’s values, such as those by Voltaire and Hugo?

Is Proust too difficult or too elitist? Rabelais and Montaigne too distant? One can hardly imagine France without them. And if Rabelais and Montaigne are acceptable, why not Madame de La Fayette, whose only novel influenced the history of the genre, and whose universe, characterized by psychological sophistication, refined manners, and relatively open moral standards, coincides with a certain idea of France that lives on throughout the world?

Beyond that, everything is a question of limits. Where do the requirements stop? How detailed should we get? Knowledge of names and dates isn’t much; it is nothing compared with actually reading the works, but it has the advantage of maintaining points of reference as well as the possibility of a national memory, or even a European or global memory.

This is all fodder for public discussion, but such a debate, while not without interest, remains rather technical, applying as it does to the content of civil service examinations, and should not concern a presidential candidate, let alone a sitting president.

De minimis non curat prætor, says the Latin adage: the praetor does not concern himself with details. A wise recommendation. One can only assume that in the twenty-first century a president of the Republic of France has a less overarching view than a mere magistrate of the city of Rome two thousand years earlier. But could it be that if the praetor does concern himself with a detail—or what appears to be one—and does so insistently, it is no longer a detail?

This is exactly what happened: the technical debate about the recruitment and promotion of civil servants was soon overshadowed by a growing controversy, for Nicolas Sarkozy’s attack on The Princesse de Clèves had been understood, rightly or wrongly, as an attack on literature as a whole.

This was partially inaccurate, given that literature was not targeted as such in the first statement on February 23, 2006. However, the candidate to the presidency revealed with this declaration that he was ill-informed regarding the importance, in educational tradition and in the national memory, of a work like that by Madame de La Fayette—assuming, of course, that she was indeed the author. Such ignorance, quickly spotted by the candidate’s opponents, was presented as evidence of Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsuitability for the office he was seeking.

The rest is history: The Princess de Clèves became the symbol of opposition to the president-elect; its print run increased by unprecedented amounts; discussions were organized by the media; public readings were held on the street, in theaters, and at universities; books were published; the novel was transposed to the present day in a good film adaptation; and Madame de La Fayette was added to the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the ultimate recognition for a French author.11

The paradoxical effect of the remarks made by Nicolas Sarkozy and his secretary of state is that it would now be unlikely that any candidate to a civil service examination would not have heard of this novel or would be unable to identify its presumed author, though perhaps the candidate would not be able to recite it by heart. Reason enough for examiners to avoid asking questions about such an easy topic—wasn’t that the president’s goal, after all?

SARKOZY’S stubborn insistence on repeating the initial anecdote ultimately turned The Princesse de Clèves into a martyr to a populist-inclined policy dominated by mistrust of intellectuals—a reciprocal mistrust, admittedly.

The worst thing—and the strangest—is that a president so concerned with the question of national identity could not understand that this identity was in part defined by the particular importance accorded to literature. In 1930, the German philologist Ernst Robert Curtius defined this singular French identity as follows:

Literature plays a far larger part in the cultural and national consciousness of France than it does in that of any other nation. In France, and in France alone, can the national literature be regarded as its most representative form of expression.… France … cannot be understood at all politically, socially, or even from the purely human point of view if literature is left out of account; if we fail to grasp the central, uniting part it plays in every sphere of the life of the nation. Further, unless we read the French classics, and read them in the way the French read them, we cannot possibly understand France. All the national ideals of France are colored and shaped by literary form. In France if a man wishes to be regarded as a politician he must be able to express himself in some form of literature. If he desires to exert influence as a speaker he must have a thorough knowledge of the collective literary treasure of the nation. No man who is not master of the spoken or of the written word can exert any influence in public life.12

Whether this is myth or fact does not much matter here. This type of discourse, the beginnings of which can be traced back to at least the eighteenth century, was particularly enduring in the first half of the twentieth century, notably in the writings of Albert Thibaudet. Curtius was regularly exposed to contemporary examples of writers heavily involved in political life, such as Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, Anatole France, and the Surrealist group.

Seventy years later, the situation was clearly not the same: to a government minister running for president of France, later a sitting president, the image of France as a literary nation had become foreign enough that he could allow himself to steadfastly attack one of the major works of French literature and generally call into question literature’s place in culture and professional training, without regarding it as unbecoming for a president.

This was nothing less than a clash between two types of legitimacy: one resulting from universal suffrage, aiming to represent, even ape, a population considered to be ignorant and hostile to literature out of principle; the other the product of the pen, a power that literary works and writers are sometimes granted in order to represent the nation and to speak in its name, at least to some degree.

A few years later, it would be a totally different story: now himself a member of the opposition and trying to regain presidential stature in view of getting reelected, Nicolas Sarkozy would deliver his mea culpa, admit he had a passion for literature, comment on Tolstoy, Balzac, and Maupassant, and regret that he had not “corrected that wisecrack” earlier.13

Was this a sincere conversion or a mere tactical switch? The question is all the more difficult to answer given that a politician’s reality is today limited almost entirely to the image he wants to project—until the next time he changes communications consultants. What does appear genuine is Sarkozy’s regret that he had chosen a bad strategy—unless his regret was itself a strategic move.

The Princesse de Clèves affair was probably the product more of a lack of thought and poorly calculated opportunism than an actual desire to do harm, but in itself this lack of thought signaled that literature’s status was fragile and that its social and political legitimacy was no longer assured, that it seemed negligible and easily overlooked.

Anti-literature is often the fault of people who do not know what they are doing.

ANOTHER ERA, another government, another political party, but nearly the same attitude. In March 2013, the minister of higher education presented a draft bill to authorize classes in French universities to be taught in English. She explained:

If we do not authorize classes in English, we will not attract students from emerging countries like South Korea and India. And we’ll wind up with five people sitting around a table talking about Proust, though I do like Proust …14

“Though I do like Proust” was clearly aimed at warding off bad luck and avoiding a repeat of Nicolas Sarkozy’s mistake with The Princesse de Clèves. The minister was wasting her breath: she was still using literature as a foil and an illustration of failure—as an insignificant activity, ultimately.

The example was particularly poorly chosen. In a reply to the minister, Antoine Compagnon reminded her that his seminars on Proust at the Collège de France attracted crowds from all over the world, including South Korea, and that many foreigners decided to learn French with the sole purpose of reading In Search of Lost Time in the original. In other words, literature “is a powerful export of French culture and industry,” which many politicians had the unfortunate habit of forgetting.15

This seems to indicate that some people have a persistent problem with literature, and only literature. Can one possibly imagine the minister speaking this way about the visual arts or cinema? “And we’ll wind up with five people sitting around a table talking about Picasso or the New Wave”: such a statement is all the more inconceivable given how aware the elites are of the tremendous financial stakes in the visual arts. Next to that, literature is seen as a poor relation.

Even if France’s relative preeminence in “the global republic of letters”16 remains a reality, as is quite clearly indicated by the statistics for foreign translations of French works and the fact that two French writers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature six years apart,17 today’s politicians still struggle to see literature for what it was for centuries: the preferred means of expression of the French nation, the one by which it becomes aware of its destiny.18

IT IS ENTIRELY possible that such unawareness is a sign of a displacement of legitimacy or a drop in literary activity’s status in the scale of values.19 But it has always been difficult and risky for literature to speak in the name of the people. When the power to do so exists, it is fragile and bound to lead to censorship and dissent. When it is illusory, the critics record its failure. In both cases, anti-literature remains in the news.

Though their principal players did not know it, the most recent controversies were in direct continuity with previous anti-literary discourse and repeated some of its most persistent leitmotifs: there is a long tradition of politicians scorning or taking no interest in literature, and the struggle for political and social legitimacy is one of the oldest that literature has faced.

Could one possibly imagine that the Third Republic, that republic of professors, was exempt from such conflicts? That would be pure rose-tinted nostalgia. Let’s reread Zola on Flaubert:

Literature, in his eyes, was a higher calling, the only important calling in the world. And so he wanted people to be respectful toward it. His big grudge against people was largely due to their indifference to art, their muted defiance, their vague fear before elaborate and brilliant style. There was a phrase he often repeated in his terrible voice: “The hatred of literature! The hatred of literature!” That hatred he found everywhere, among politicians even more than among the bourgeois.20

In a chapter of The Experimental Novel appropriately entitled “The Hatred of Literature,” Zola attacks politicians who put on airs in front of writers:

When you have failed in everything and everywhere, when you have been an unsuccessful lawyer, an unsuccessful journalist, an unsuccessful man from head to feet, politics will take you in hand and make you a minister as good as another, reigning, from the position of a more or less modest and amiable upstart, over the French intelligence. These are the facts.

My God! The facts are still acceptable, for there are strange things happening daily around us. The observer becomes accustomed to it, and contents himself with smiling. But it makes me sick when these men pretend to despise us and patronize us. We are only writers, we hardly count; they limit our share in the sunshine, they place us at the foot of the table. Ah! When the situations are finally determined, gentlemen, we intend to pass in first, to have the whole table and all of the sunshine.21

Written accounts of this caste-based anti-literature are most often second hand. This is only logical: those who proclaim their contempt for writers are generally loath to become writers themselves and to fill entire pages with expressions of their scorn; they have other things to think about, luckily. What is new today is that the slightest statement is recorded: a blow against literature has less chance of going unnoticed and remaining without a response.

Conversely, the punching bag already has pen in hand, and social resentment provides the opportunity—why not?—for a poem:

Apollo’s art is not for the vulgar herd.

It’s hardly a way for the greedy to make big money.

Ambitious men think of poetry as a funny

waste of their time. In a soldier’s pack, it’s absurd

to expect a book of verse. The bigwigs shun it.

The clever are clever enough to keep their distance.

It’s a sorry business. Take Du Bellay, for instance,

to demonstrate the scorn people heap upon it.

Courtiers think it is profitless and dumb.

Artists want to be paid in advance—if they come.

The Muse is a bad mistress, a worse wife.

I remain, nonetheless, faithful. I will not quit.

It’s only my writing that comforts me a bit,

and I thank the Muse for the last six years of my life.22

Three centuries before Flaubert and Zola, the arguments sound strangely similar; only the posture is different, this resignation before the fate in store for poets, which Joachim Du Bellay makes the subject of his poem and the source of his inspiration. Ignored by the vulgar, mocked by the great, neglected by courtiers, lacking any use in social exchanges in general, poetry is reduced to occupying a no man’s land that is all the more celebrated because it receives so little recognition—a symbolic compensation that takes on its full meaning in an art that is, precisely, devoted to symbols.

THE ANTI-LITERATURE of democratic societies has kept many of the traits that already existed under the Ancien Régime: power, whatever its origins, produces its elites and its outcasts—even more so in a monarchic and aristocratic state.

Frederick William I of Prussia, the aptly named “soldier-king,” had a particular detestation for anything related in any way to poetry. “Any poet was an odious object to him,” reported the Abbé Irail.23 One day, Frederick noticed characters written above the main door of his palace in Berlin and asked what they were. He was told that this was Latin verse composed by a poet from the city. The king summoned him at once. The poet appeared, expecting a reward; the king ordered him to leave the city and the entire realm without delay. He did so immediately.

Frederick William I also forbade his son to learn Latin and read poetry. In this case, he was less successful: the son continued to educate himself in secret. He was found out and publicly punished. He rebelled and ran away. He was arrested and imprisoned, and so on and so forth—which did not prevent this lettered son from openly devoting himself to his love of poetry and literature once he acceded to the throne, nor from turning his kingdom into one of the most enlightened in Europe, to which he invited the greatest scholars and most brilliant writers. For every poet exiled, ten were rediscovered: this would be Frederick II’s revenge on his father.

FREDERICK WILLIAM I did not need to read Plato to hate poetry. His taste for all things military was reason enough. Napoleon I did not have much regard for literature either. He was exclusively partial to science, for it seemed to him that science alone was useful and worthy of respect; writers, by contrast, whom he called “phrasemakers,” earned only his “disdain” and “disgust,” according to Napoleon’s one-time secretary Louis-Antoine Bourrienne. Napoleon’s insensitivity “to beautiful poetry and beautiful prose” was so total that fine books seemed to him a pure “arrangement of sonorous words empty of meaning and which, according to him, only struck the ear.”24 Besides, he lacked the time to read literature (just like a recent minister of culture25): “[Time] was so precious to him that he would have liked to find a shorter route than a straight line, so to speak; he only liked men who dealt with positive, exact things,” without direct political impact.26

Here we recognize the legacy of the anti-literary discourse about the futility and frivolity of poetry (as described in the Third Trial), combined with considerations of the political danger posed by writers, and the military man’s traditional contempt for the writer.

THIS CLASSIST contempt was conveyed early on even by men of letters: there are abundant accounts of it among the greatest humanists of the sixteenth century. Justus Lipsius stated: “If I had children, I would certainly prevent them from studying.”27 Joseph Justus Scaliger had similar ideas: “If I had ten children, I would not let even one of them study: I would present them in the courts of the princes.”28 Both examples are cited by François de La Mothe Le Vayer in a work whose title says it all: Doute sceptique si l’étude des belles-lettres est préférable à toute autre occupation (Skeptical doubt as to whether the study of literature is preferable to any other occupation).29 Here, La Mothe Le Vayer comments on the regrets expressed by his two illustrious precursors:

All those great Palamedes, who loved letters so much that they increased their number, at the end are reduced just as the Greek himself was—which is why I give them his name—to making constant complaints that they lost so much time acquiring something that made them unhappy and that they had imagined entirely differently from how they experienced it. This may be what led certain emperors to persecute men of letters by very strict edicts, and popes to mistreat those they referred to as Terentianos, as being too attached to the beautiful diction of the classical authors.30

La Mothe Le Vayer reports that in 1622 “the study of grammar was prohibited in Spain” in order to prevent the proliferation of “a laziness that is harmful to the state, as well as being the ruin of those who become accustomed to it.”31 At a time when the separation of discourses was not what it is today, it was all of learning that was targeted under the name of belles-lettres or grammar, and not only poetry or what we now call literature; as for actual poetry and literature, the courts and princes considered them, at best, purely servile arts and, at worst, useless, if not harmful activities. They were universally scorned.

La Mothe Le Vayer wrote his Doute sceptique in 1667. It was a distant echo, in the heart of the seventeenth century and the classical period, of the anti-literary question earlier raised by Montaigne regarding education—as always, the central issue. Indeed, one finds a surprising passage in Montaigne’s Essais in which the philosopher, referring to himself as an exception, gives thanks to his tutor for having developed his taste for Roman poets, without which, he adds, “I should have gotten nothing out of school but a hatred of books, as do nearly all our noblemen.”32 This striking expression describes a sociological reality of the period: in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the hatred of books was a class hatred—founded in social class no less than classrooms—combined with a caste-based contempt for schoolteachers and writers.

Paradoxically, Montaigne himself does not always avoid this contempt—he who prefers the charms of conversation to those of text. He makes fun of “scribbling,” a “symptom of an unruly age”; rejects pedantry, arrogance, and vain subtleties; and praises the simple language and natural style that are the antithesis of lettered artifice.33

The model of the honnête homme thus emerges from the Essais as it would be disseminated throughout the entire next century: an aristocratic socialite, free of the dishonoring yoke of studies, accustomed to physical exercise and the government of his land, and professing nothing but disdain for books—other than the Essais themselves, his only breviary.34 The time had come for the triumph of the esprit, the kind of wit that allowed one to shine in salons, the sign of a natural nobility that would inevitably be spoiled by excessive familiarity with literature. Pedantry of any kind is execrated.

A FEW YEARS after Montaigne’s death, the author of the first French treatise on horseback riding, a Gascon like the late philosopher, admitted at the beginning of his book that he had always preferred “vigorous exercise” to “fine letters” and that he had been born, “to my great regret, with the shortcoming of never dedicating myself to reading.” Emboldened by this confession, he went so far as to take pride in his volume’s lack of art:

My writings, however poorly polished, will bring more usefulness and contentment to noble and generous minds than the stack of books they usually have in their hands, though their language is more eloquent and affected, for the virtue in action is far worthier than that in contemplation, and beautiful actions are to be prized above beautiful words.35

An attitude typical of the aristocrat who values action at the expense of beautiful language.

CURIOUSLY, this anti-literary discourse, through which the aristocratic caste proclaimed its own values, did not prevent the writing of books, or even the development of a new literature, whose distinguishing feature was mockery of belles-lettres. This was the case with Charles Sorel’s novel Le Berger extravagant (The extravagant shepherd), whose subtitle was distinctly anti-literary: où parmi des fantaisies amoureuses on voit les impertinences des romans et de la poésie (wherein, among fantasies of love, one sees the impertinences of novels and poetry). The novel even includes a poem entitled “Adieu à la poésie” (Farewell to poetry).36 A few years later the author pseudonymously published L’Anti-roman, plainly appropriating anti-literary discourse to produce a work of literature.

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the promotion of a style of writing intended to be closer to nature and ordinary usage and free of showy devices eventually invested literature with a new legitimacy and a force of expression, if not of sincerity, that would ultimately be fulfilled in the romantic revolution—which was less a revolution, from this perspective, than an evolution: ironically, the aristocratic posture of anti-literature led to a more democratic regime of literary expression.

AS IS OFTEN the case, Italy was in the vanguard of this movement. In 1526, the satirical poet Francesco Berni published a Dialogue against Poets, in which he officially renounced the very title of poet—“I de-poeticize myself” (mi spoeto)—after having poured out every possible insult at his colleagues and ostracized them from society:

SANGA: Just as the Christians mark the Jews as a despicable and odious people by making them wear a yellow hat or a red roundel, poets must in the same manner wear a green hat, both as a sign of infamy and to enable people to keep away from them and not let them get close.

BARBI: As for me, I say a white band, like for those who are sick! And I think I would also organize a specific inquisition against poets, as they do for heretics and marranos in Spain, which, you should be aware, is all the more necessary now that we no longer know whom we have to protect ourselves against.37

White bands and green hats, as for the sick and the insane, and ostracism, as for the Jews: an anti-poetic police force and another ghetto have seen the day. And why stop while you’re ahead? Follow through with the comparison and allow poets to enjoy the same fate that Christian society, in its goodness, reserved for Jews and heretics:

Poets appear to me to be the kind of animal that Piovano Arlotto preached was only good dead: he meant pigs. Well, poets are like pigs: if I like them at all, I only like them when they’re dead; this is why I wish they were all dead.38

Though one must allow for burlesque exaggeration in this dialogue, the expression is radical and the solution brutal and proven to be effective: a death sentence for poetry, if not poets. All types are included; every model of humanist poetry is considered fit for the bonfire, from Homer to Virgil, from Hesiod to Horace, and from Aeschylus to Catullus.

The only ones to escape the slaughter are the lords who poeticize in their spare time, such as Pietro Bembo, Giovanni Pontano, and Jacopo Sannazaro: “Those ones, we know who they are, and that they can do something other than write verse if they want to. They do not make poetry their profession.”39 The condemnation is thus revealed to be socially discriminatory—reserved for a particular class of professional poets who are poor and dependent, useless to the state, licentious, even dangerous, and who are perpetuating the autonomous tradition of a lettered and artificial poetry.

By publicly de-poeticizing himself and making amends, Berni obeyed the moral injunction of his protector, the austere and powerful bishop Gian Matteo Giberti, who championed a strict reform of the church.40 However, one cannot rule out the hypothesis that with this startlingly earthy and violent, deliberately grotesque and contradictory dialogue, Berni sought to parody the anti-literary and anti-poetic imprecations then being hurled from the pulpit, as had been memorably demonstrated by Savonarola and his acolytes thirty years earlier in Florence.41 This dialogue was another paradoxical example of celebrating the power of poets, commensurate with the severity of the crimes they were accused of.

In this case, the project was of a fundamentally ironic nature: the ingenuity of Berni’s rhetorical device is that we will never know whether we are dealing with the real thing. But this uncertainty does not prevent his words from making one shudder at the thought of the social violence they imply: even when anti-literature pokes fun at anti-literature, the symbolic force of its discourse remains intact.42

IN ARISTOCRATIC SOCIETY, the lords have nothing but contempt for literature; in democratic society, it is the people—or their representatives and those who claim to speak for them—who constitute the greatest political danger to literature. With the end of the dominant bourgeois culture and the spread of a mass culture shared by all social classes, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the expression of increasingly virulent criticisms of literature’s status in official culture.

In this new trial inspired by democratic impulses, sociologists imposed themselves as the spokespeople for those who had until then not had a voice, taking over this function from writers such as Hugo, Zola, and Jules Vallès. Claiming to speak in a more neutral, objective, and supposedly less self-interested voice, they studied the actual forms of popular culture, which had up to this point been neglected by the academy.

The seminal work was Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, which brought to light, for the first time, the particular way in which the English working classes experienced their relationship to the written word, as well as the place it occupied among a larger group of distractions.43 The inspiration for this research, carried out by an academic from the same background as his subjects, was eminently empathetic, and the book rose almost to the level of literary fiction in its manner of describing and representing typical figures, objects, and scenes of popular life: the ascent of the scholarship student, the reading of illustrated magazines, the songs sung by neighborhood choirs, and so on.

One year later, in Culture and Society (1780—1950), Raymond Williams described the emergence of the concept of culture in England during the Industrial Revolution and raised the question of how one would define a “common culture” in the contemporary world.44 The use of historical perspective opened a debate: by showing that the very idea of culture had undergone significant changes over the previous two centuries, Williams suggested that it could be subject to further change.

This approach gave rise to the new discipline of cultural studies. Initially centered at the University of Birmingham, where Hoggart had been appointed a professor, cultural studies spread throughout the English-speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s. In many institutions, English departments took on this new name. This change went hand in hand with a marginalization of the field of literary studies, which was now considered just one element in a larger whole, on a par with cinema, television, and pop music.

Naturally, voices were raised in protest against this dilution of literature in culture, which was seen as the loss of a privileged status.45 Objectively speaking, it cannot be denied that the development of cultural studies has had an anti-literary effect, by reducing the representation of literature in academic curricula and research.

Yet this had not been the original intention: neither Hoggart nor Williams was calling into question the significance of literature in the common culture or seeking to reduce it. Both were professors of English literature, devoted to passing on their knowledge of and appreciation for the great works of the canon under the best conditions and to all their students, no matter their social background.46 In fact, it was precisely because of the difficulties they were encountering in this endeavor that they began to take a specific interest in the forms of popular culture. For Hoggart, the most complex figures of literary modernity—Yeats, Eliot, Joyce—were unsurpassable beacons. According to Williams, recognizing the existence of a historical “bourgeois culture” should under no circumstances lead the new rising classes either to neglect what he called, significantly, a “common human inheritance,” or to attempt to pare it down.47

In fact, the attacks against literature in the academy came from several fronts at once: during the same period that witnessed the publication of Hoggart’s and Williams’s major books, the late 1950s, Snow gave his famous speech on “the two cultures,” with the great success we have noted. We have also seen how Snow then used sociology as an argument against the defenders of literary culture.48 The coincidence between the appearance of a sociology of culture, on one hand, and the demand for a more scientific university education, on the other, functioned like a concerted attack, with literary studies as the principal victim.

A subject does not need to explicitly express the discourse of anti-literature for anti-literature to exist: all that is necessary is a social groundswell, the multiple causes of which are to be found everywhere, including sometimes in literature itself.49

THE DISCOURSE of French sociology, while equally ambiguous, was something different, something perhaps more dangerous. In 1970, Hoggart’s seminal volume was published under Pierre Bourdieu’s imprint with Éditions de Minuit, “Le Sens Commun,” with a preface by Jean-Claude Passeron and a title surprisingly different from the original: La Culture du pauvre (The culture of the poor person). For several years, Bourdieu and Passeron had been collaborating on studying “the uses of literacy’ ” (to use Hoggart’s original title) in different situations and different places—schools, universities, museums—following an approach that cut across the social classes. By substituting the simplifying and categorizing singular (“the poor person”) for a plural liable to misunderstanding or even to a potentially pejorative interpretation (“We taught them to read and this is how they’ve used … this instrument of liberation!”), the French title made it possible to pigeonhole Hoggart’s book, to slant its reception, and to more effectively integrate the contributions of English cultural sociology with French research.50 In short, to make it a complement rather than a competitor.

Yet there was quite a distance between the method followed by the English sociologist, which was subjective, empathic, intuitive—literary, as it were—and that of Bourdieu and Passeron, who claimed to achieve uncompromising objectivity and scientific rigor by using academic rhetoric, a specialized vocabulary, and charts and statistics based on apparently exhaustive surveys—all features of a technical nature that were totally absent from Hoggart’s work.

This was a question of a difference not only of method, but of content. Neither Hoggart nor Williams had called into question the preeminent value of literary high culture, to which, on the contrary, they explicitly paid tribute. The situation is entirely different with Bourdieu and Passeron: they say nothing about literature’s own value or what it represents to them, in this respect keeping perfect axiological neutrality and epistemological distance. On the other hand, their entire discourse aims to show that this literary culture that is so highly praised is ultimately an instrument of power in the hands of the dominant social classes. It has no value in and of itself (or at least this value has no impact on the process described); it does not serve to shape students’ sense of aesthetics and morals in one way or another; it does not enrich their lives; it does not aim to give meaning to the world in which they live; it does not serve to give them the language and common references that will allow them to become integrated into society.

In fact, it is the opposite: literature only serves as a tool of distinction between the social classes; it is only the shibboleth by which elites reproduce themselves, the sign of recognition by which well-off students find their way in the system, the instrument of cultural segregation, the most manifest proof of the hypocrisy or failure of the democratic ambitions of the French republican school:

But one cannot account for the pre-eminent value the French system sets on literary aptitude and, more precisely, on the capacity for turning all experience, not least literary experience, into literary discourse; in short, everything that goes to make up the French way of living the literary—and sometimes even the scientific—life like a Parisian life, unless one sees that this intellectual tradition nowadays still fulfills a social function in the functioning of the educational system and in the equilibrium of its relations with the intellectual field and the different social classes.51

Literature is an empty object, without content; a pure stylistic effect, as it were, which has remained useful in the educational system only as the distinguishing feature of an inherited linguistic and cultural capital. One piece of evidence is that teachers have a tendency, paradoxically, to value aspects of their students’ work that do not directly relate to school and are not taught there: when they write “academic” in the margin of a student’s essay, it is anything but a sign of approval; the disdain expressed by the institution for what relates to the institution itself ratifies its own defeat as an instrument of social mobility, in so far as, in a pernicious and painful way for the student concerned, it only considers that this student has “complete possession” of the culture when this culture “has been acquired by familiarization,” namely not at school but in the context of a family belonging to the “dominant classes.”52 The institution is thus enlisted to perpetuate a preexisting order, and the aesthetic of the pure work of art, as it was promoted in the nineteenth century, is the preferred ideological tool of this recruiting, since it turns literature into an autotelic object that has no other aim than to formally distinguish itself from other discourses. Literature is the ultimate sign of distinction, as well as its symbol.

Admittedly, Bourdieu and Passeron sometimes recognize that other bodies of knowledge can, in certain circumstances, take on this “function of social distinction”: for example, “econometrics,” “computer science,” and “the latest thing in structuralism.” But the primacy that the French education system gives to “the social function of culture (scientific as well as literary culture) over the technical function of competence” ensures literature an eminent position as the very symbol of gratuitous knowledge, and it is to literature, as well as to the arts in general, that the two sociologists devote most of their analyses.53

In this line of reasoning, they prove to be no less the heirs than the victims of the aesthetic discourse that empties literature of any content. It is true that without content, literature no longer has a literal sense and that, without a literal meaning, its relevance can only be measured on a higher level, that of society considered as a whole, as a distinguishing feature inside the system of social signs.54 “What would become of the literary world,” Bourdieu asks, “if one began to argue, not about the value of this or that author’s style, but about the value of arguments about style? The game is over when people start wondering if the cake is worth the candle.”55

Yes, of course—but this would only be true if literature were just a game, if it did not express a vision of the world, a particular celebration or denunciation of the gods, humankind, existence, what have you, and if it did not take on a hygienic or medical function.56 If literature should prove to have a purpose other than a purely aesthetic function, a good part of the argument against it would collapse, and sociologists would have as little interest in it as a sign of distinction as they do in econometrics or computer science.

Strictly speaking, Bourdieu and Passeron’s discourse is not anti-literary; Bourdieu even occasionally felt the need to express his wariness of politicians who confine “the dispossessed” to their cultural enclaves, as well as his personal admiration for the great works and their capacity to transform society.57 But aesthetic value as a value (which is not the same thing as its value as a sign) and the very meaning of literary works are simply eliminated from his sociological system of explanation, or considered at best a negligible quantity, and he supplies all the tools for literature to be sidelined in education.58

This was obviously not the objective: Bourdieu and Passeron’s project was primarily focused on a critique of so-called democratic schools.59 But since they do not provide the slightest hint of a possible solution or reform; since they reduce the multiple, complex relations of domination permeating society to a single one that operates unilaterally; since their fundamentally pessimistic discourse describes static situations, with no evolution and without exception, without showing the marginal successes that nevertheless confer a modicum of legitimacy on the system and contribute to modifying the composition of society and the distribution of cultural capital in the long run, there seems to be no other way out than the complete abrogation of the system and the disappearance of literature as an academic subject, in order to put an end to the unfair discriminations that it causes. This argument provides literature’s opponents with powerful weapons.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY is that literature does not adequately reflect the whole of society. When the regime is aristocratic, literature is criticized for not being aristocratic enough and not belonging to the clan of the powerful; when it is democratic, it is accused of being elitist and contributing to the system’s flaws. In short, it always seems inadequate relative to some political demand: not aristocratic enough, not democratic enough. Everywhere, under every regime, the writer is scorned, or is considered dangerous, or is denounced as the blind servant of a reprehensible system. In any case, this proves that the problem is not so much an essential or permanent lack of democracy on the part of literature as its lack of power: its powerlessness makes it the ideal scapegoat.

Plato recommended that the guardians of the republic not devote themselves to imitative poetry, that is to theater, which would lead them to play parts unworthy of them: he considered that poetic fiction carried an uncontrollable subversive charge, liable to topple the order on which society was founded—the opposite of the accusation made by Bourdieu and Passeron, who see it as a conservative tool for perpetuating social inequalities, because, unlike Plato and his contemporaries, they do not believe in the content of fictional works.60

However, the conclusion is one and the same: poetry (or The Princesse de Clèves) is useless. No city ever tried to keep within its walls Homer, Hesiod, or the other poets who were circulating throughout Greece, unlike the sophists and wise men, for whom fortunes were paid.61 No one in a government building has ever asked the ticket clerk what she thinks of Madame de La Fayette. It is as if the arguments against literature have less weight than the conclusion, and that the conclusion is always predetermined: literature’s social fragility and its status as an unprofitable activity in the republic expose it to every accusation and every proscription.

Yet two thousand five hundred years have passed and literature is still here, different, of course, and endowed with incomparable forms and functions, but present, alive, and current. Anti-literature is also here, in perfect symbiosis, to limit literature’s powers and uses, define its outlines, suggest the dangers it poses, and lament its failures. The trial brought against literature in the name of society less often underlines its strength than its weakness and impotence: a good reason to keep reading and writing it—differently.