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The Marquis de Sade and Matthew Arnold

with 5 comments

I knew, when I wrote that post yesterday, or the day before, whatever it is I’ve been doing, that I was going to end up having to write this one or something like it today.

But I also think I may have come up with a slightly different approach.

So let me start on the usual first, and then I’ll try to branch out from there.

First, let me say that I wouldn’t take Michel Foucalt’s advice on where to get lunch, never mind on what constituted the best that had been thought or said in the history of Western Civilization.

The entire deconstructionist movement as it arose and existed in France is a swamp of former Nazi collaborators, sexually deviant (necrophilia, sadistic, etc) obsessives, and guilty consciences desperate to find a loophole to their own best good sense.

Whatever was going on in French literary circles in the long period from the end of the war to Vietnam, it had little or nothing to do with literature.  The fact that it was largely carried out in the literature departments of French universities–and then imported to literature departments here–was largely opportunistic. 

Literature departments both in Europe and the United States were uniquely vulnerable to corruption, because they were among the youngest of academic disciplines and as a discipline they had been distinctly undefined.

When the first English departments were established in American universities in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, nobody was really sure what they were for or what they were supposed to be doing.

Matthew Arnold had suggested that education should consist of acquainting students with “the best that has been thought and said” in Western civilization, but nobody was entirely sure what that was or how we ought to pick it. 

American “English” departments spent some time trying to figure out what constitued a distinctly “American”  (as opposed to English) literature.  If you read Hawthorne and Melville now, that’s largely why.  And as an experiment in national identity-building, it’s worth a look for its own sake.

And for a while there was even some sort of consensus on the bare bones basics of what constituted literature in English:  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen. 

What consensus there was, however, fell apart in the late Fifties and totally self-destructed in the Sixties.  If you’d told me you were an English major in 1954, I’d have been able to know without asking that you’d read that list up there, and all of it–all the plays of Shakespeare, all the novels of Jane Austen.

I would have known that no matter where you went to school or who your teachers were.  If you’d gone to a “good” school, I’d also know that you’d been required to learn to read either French (more likely) or German and to have suffered your way through at least a couple of courses in literature in that language.

These days, if you tell me you’re an English major, I have no idea what you’re doing.  I know at least five colleges where you can graduate with an English major without ever having read a word of Chaucer, and with having ready at most half a dozen Shakespeare plays and those in “translation” to “modern English.”

The English major died long before the deconstructionists came to wreak havoc on the “literary” world.  And because it had already died, it was ripe for invection by politicized idiocy. 

And infected it did get.

But I wouldn’t blame that on something intrinsic in literature, any more than I’d blame chemistry if an entire generation of chemists decided that alchemy was the real deal and ditched their traditional discipline for that instead.

That said, a few things about canons, in the plural.

It has to be in the plural, because we actually use the word in a lot of different ways.

There is “canon” in referring to specific subsets of literature.  I don’t mean, here, things like American literature or even Southern Gothic, but things like the Star Trek “universe.”   Readers will talk about how Smith’s story presented Kirk’s past in this way, which is interesting, but it’s not “canonical.”  “Canon” requires Kirk to be born to a famous but now dead Starfleet captain.

Readers of many different series and viewers of many different movie and television series have developed rather complex systems of analysis and interpretation in which the word “canon” is used in this sense, and the sense isn’t all that different from at least one of the professional uses of the word.

But in this case, “canon” is used to define those parts of the story that are felt to be “officially” true, and those entries–published books, released movies, whatever–that are themselves assumed to be “official” (as opposed to fan fiction, for instance).

The way the rest of the world uses the word “canon” comes in two parts, and with two different but possibly intersecting meanings.

The first is “those works that have so influenced the society you live in that not to be acquainted with them makes you only semi-literate, and that your life will be influenced by whether you know about them or not.”

This is a constantly shifting list, obviously, and the item on it do not necessarily constitute “the best that has been thought and said.” 

In the America of the twenty-first century, I’d include Superman on that list, but I wouldn’t include Ethan Frome or even James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

I don’t know if I’d include either Steinbeck or Hemingway–my guess is that there would be a stronger case for at least some Steinbeck, if only because he represents Depression era attitudes of a very specific kind, still having some impact on how we view policy questions about poverty and the welfare state.

But the inclusion would be iffy. 

There would be nothing iffy about the inclusion of Ayn Rand on such a list, however, because her ideas have had a huge impact on American social and political life in one way or another.

The second sense in which we use the word “canon” is in the sense of “the best that has been thought and said,” and for this there are also two subdivisions.

The first is entirely technical.  We could mean, by this definition, those works that are the most technically accomplished in their areas, the literary equivalent, say, of Michaelangelo’s Pieta or Beethoven’s Eroica. 

When we do this, we are setting a standard for performance, justifying that standard, and then trying to determine if any particular work meets it. 

Literary forms, just like anything else coherent, have an internal logic.  We have at least as good a chance of figuring out if a particular work satisfies the rules for its form as we do of figuring out if a basketball player has just committed a foul or not. 

Think of literature in this sense as a game.  Games have rules, and the rules can never be 100% arbitrary.   Basketball will require a basket and a ball, and it will not work if you try to play it with squares of melting cheese.

On this definition, I have no way of knowing if Sade constitutes part of “the best that has been thought or said” or not.  Like I said, my French was never that good, and it’s far less good know than it was a couple of decades ago.

It’s worth noting, however, that although a few people have made the argument for Sade as great literature on the basis of formal excellence, they are few and far between, and none of them were part of the original Sade rehabilitation movement in France. 

Most of the people hell bent (so to speak) on “rehabilitating” Sade wanted to do so on the basis of the second of the two subsets here:  that of the “best that has been thought and said” as indicating those thing we as a civilization should be most proud of, examples of what in means to be human in the highest sense.

People like Foucalt did not want to say that Sade wrote well, which he might have, for all I know.  Hitler wrote well.

They wanted instead–and still want–to present Sade as an example for our emulation. 

Because that is what this second sense of “canon” means.  If these are the examples of being human in the highest sense, then they are by necessity the role models for the rest of us.  They define our aspirations and, in the end, our goal.

It was against including Sade in the “canon” in this sense that Shattuck was protesting, and equally protesting  what he saw as an overanalytical, hyperconceptual concept of art that was divorced from its actual function in the real world.

Personally, I think he gave Foucalt and company too much credit.  I think they, and the people who followed them, were completely aware that what they were trying to do was “normalize” behavior that was, in fact, objectively evil.

And I’m fairly sure they were doing it for the reason I think deconstruction was invented to begin with–because only by doing it, and by obscuring all straightforward understanding of what words mean in the process, could they get out from under how they had behaved during the Nazi occupation of France.

I’ve got Gustav and tea.

Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2011 at 9:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Marquis de Sade and Matthew Arnold'

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  1. Any comment I made on the seduction of university Lit departments would be rude in at least two senses of the word. Let’s just say the individuals teaching in American universities were old enough to be accountable for their actions, and leave it at that.

    On the first meaning of “Canon” I’d just like to point out that one used bookshop I hit while on vacation had 22 books in a “Conan” sub-department. Exactly three had any material at all by Robert E. Howard. It’s not too surprising that even popular culture recoils from this kind of thing, and adopts a meaning pretty well taken from theologians. Look up “canonicity” at some point. On to “the rest of the world.”

    Influence on the culture, merit as literature and works to be proud of as a human being are all, if you will, points of entry, or else we’d have three lists. They’re headed to the same place, and we all know the place. The very first Methodist hymnal had a preface by Charles Wesley. (Quoting from memory.) “Learn these hymns first. Afterward, learn as many as you can.”

    “Learn these first.” THAT’s what we’re discussing. To call yourself educated, you must be aquainted with these works at a BA level, and these for a Lit PhD. Otherwise, we’re just saying “Joe, you’d enjoy PRINCESS OF MARS” or “Mary, you need to read ATLAS SHRUGGED.” There are lists like that all over the Web. What makes a list the Canon is the demand or expectation that it be read.

    And it’s a game of “Lifeboat.” In my very best reading years, I was reading 350-400 books a year. Note I said “reading” not “studying.” And that means on my best year I read as many books as there were titles printed every day of that year. Read a book carefully, reflecting and taking notes. Read commentary on it. Discuss it in class and write a short paper to help solidify what you’ve learned. Fifty books a year? More likely half that–meaning we can demand of a BA 100 books plus what he needs to earn his bread, and the Lit PhD perhaps 2-300, since this IS how he will earn his bread–though it would be nice to think that he will continue to learn after graduation. So if we add JUSTINE, something–TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE? PERSUASION?–is going to have to go.

    Of course if, as Jane points out, there is no body of literature consistently required of a scholar, we’re back to saying “This is a great book!” I say that a lot, but everyone who is told that by anyone should consider the source. And if JUSTINE is something to be proud of, what ought we to be ashamed of?

    A side note on quality of literature. I agree, but only to a point. Some of this is style, as in figure-skating: not what you do, but how you do it. And references, vocabulary and sentence structure are things which will be pleasing or not depending on both taste and the background of the reader. I take off serious points for style in the case of some authors whose style Jane clearly enjoys.

    When it comes to structure, the problem is that we derive the rules of the game from watching the play, and it is entirely legal and proper for any author to start a new game. Almost all gothics and many romantic suspense novels can be described as detective novels, but it misses the point. As Dr. Gideon Fell put it, “The worst mystery is that in which a woman can’d decide whether or not her husband is a murderer. No one else cares.” The more original a work is, the less helpful our existing ideas of rules are to the new game. It’s a good reason for standing back and studying for a long time before one condems, if we could only get the Lit departments and critics to do so.

    A scholar whose opinion I value once told me that the purpose of the novel was to describe contemporary life. I suggested that certain authors were were attempting to show, not how we live, but how we ought to live, and was told that this was NOT done in the novel. It was permitted in epic poetry, but the works in question were in prose. One thinks of the German publisher which kicked back THE HOBBIT because they had looked in all the books, and there was no such thing as hobbits.

    Fortunately, the opinion of the scholar is not binding on author or reader.


    2 Apr 11 at 1:27 pm

  2. I agree with Robert that American professors were old enough to be accountable for their actions. How they could adopt a “theory” that all theories are false without realizing the internal contradiction is beyond me.

    The connection between the Nazi occupation of France and deconstruction is new to me but then I never paid much attention to either of them. Why France rather than some other European country?


    2 Apr 11 at 5:47 pm

  3. The French in WWII are interesting. They may have lost more men fighting the Allies than they lost fighting the Germans, and Jews fled Vichy France to Fascist Italy, where they were safer. The last troops Hitler decorated were French SS. France still has some unresolved issues from the war, but it was a lot worse when people who taught and governed in those years were still active.
    No other serious culture was as CONFLICTED by the war. Everyone else pretty much was on one side or the other. (I pass over a little vignette in 1945 when Belgians serving as British commandos escorted home for trial Flemings from the Waffen SS. There’s a novel in there somewhere.)


    2 Apr 11 at 6:51 pm

  4. I just checked Wikipedia and found Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)

    That would make him 14 in 1940 so I don’t see a connection between his philosophy and the Occupation.


    2 Apr 11 at 9:25 pm

  5. Speaking of that crowd, a good account of Jean Paul Sartre’s effective, if not quite overt, collaboration with the Nazis is in Clive James’s essay on that subject in his collection titled “Cultural Amnesia”.

    Here’s a sample:

    “As a philosopher, to escape history was Sartr’s chief concern. There was almost no salient truth about the Occupation period that he was able to analyse directly at the moment when it might have mattered. When it was safe to do so, he nerved himself to say that anti-Semitism was a bad thing. _Réflexions sur la question juive_ even contains a good epigram: armed with anti-Semitism, he said, even an idiot can be a member of an elite. Though the trains had already left from Drancy – by the time he wrote the pamphlet, the Nazis were gone as well – at least his opinion was published. He slammed the stable door. But he never made a beginning on the question of how the writers and intellectuals who continued with their careers during the Occupation could do so only at the cost – precisely calculated by the Propaganda Abteilung – of tacitly conniving at Nazi policies, all of which radiated from one central policy, which was the extermination of the Jews. No moral issue was ever more inescapably real; even the cost of ignoring it was directly measurable in lost lives; there could be no philosophical discussion of any subject on which _that_ subject did not intrude. If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behaviour – and clearly he did – he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded, at least on the level of professional prestige. Working by a sure instinct for bogus language, a non-philosopher like George Orwell could call Sartre’s political writings a heap of beans, but there were few professional thinkers anywhere who found it advisable to dismiss Sartre’s air of intelligence: there was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement – to reemploy a French word that was worked to death at the time – Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say they thought him nothing.”

    It’s a scathing condemnation of one of history’s great poseurs.

    Speaking of anti-Semitism, and of slamming stable doors, here’s a link to an article by Melanie Phillips drawing attention to the fact that Goldstone has finally, if belatedly, recanted his condemnation Israel’s behaviour in Operation Cast Lead. (Somebody who still visits RAM might like to post the link there for the benefit of the resident anti-Semites there – with my compliments.)



    2 Apr 11 at 9:52 pm

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