This is the preliminary and extended version of a talk I will give on May 25, 2019, in Warsaw, during an international conference entitled “Delegitimation as a Social Phenomenon”. The reader is advised it deals with issues of sexual violence and racism. The text is not illustrated.
The subject I propose to investigate with you today is a series of social conflicts that have occurred, since the beginning of the 21st century, around the legitimacy and the values attached to literary works in France, and more specifically to the most classical of these works. I will show how the social and moral value of literature, which had been so far and to a large extent undisputed, has been put to the test of new social norms and mores, by critics from one side of the political spectrum to the other. This, in turn, has led to several attempts to protect and defend this literature, attempts which, I will argue, are often inefficient and misguided, if not entirely counterproductive.
I will start by describing three such social conflicts, which have occurred between the late 2000s and March 2019. They are as follows:
- The Princesse de Clèves Controversy (2006-2008)
- The “Oaristys” Controversy (2017-2019)
- The Suppliants Controversy (2019)
The Princesse de Clèves Controversy (2006-2008)
In 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was at this point the French Minister for Interior Affairs, gave, on February 23, a speech in front of some of the members of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the political party he presided. Of the 17th century classical French novel La Princesse de Clèves, he had this to say:
L’autre jour, je m’amusais, on s’amuse comme on peut, à regarder le programme du concours d’attaché d’administration. Un sadique ou un imbécile, choisissez, avait mis dans le programme d’interroger les concurrents sur la Princesse de Clèves. Je ne sais pas si cela vous est souvent arrivé de demander à la guichetière ce qu’elle pensait de la Princesse de Clèves? Imaginez un peu le spectacle!»
The other day, I was passing the time, as one tends to do, by reading the syllabus for the competitive examination for administrative clerks. Someone who was either sadistic or an imbecile, your pick, had put into the syllabus the fact of testing the candidates on their knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves. I don’t know if you’ve often had the opportunity to discuss with the office clerk her feelings on the Princesse de Clèves? Just picture the scene!
Then, the following year, in a press interview with the journal 20 minutes, he said substantially the same thing, with some added comments:
Dans la fonction publique, il faut en finir avec la pression des concours et des examens. L’autre jour, je m’amusais, on s’amuse comme on peut, à regarder le programme du concours d’attaché d’administration. Un sadique ou un imbécile, choisissez, avait mis dans le programme d’interroger les concurrents sur La Princesse de Clèves. Je ne sais pas si cela vous est souvent arrivé de demander à la guichetière ce qu’elle pensait de La Princesse de Clèves… Imaginez un peu le spectacle! En tout cas, je l’ai lu il y a tellement longtemps qu’il y a de fortes chances que j’aie raté l’examen!
In the public service, one has to put an end to the pressure of competitive examinations and tests. The other day, I was passing the time, as one tends to do, by reading the syllabus for the competitive examination for administrative clerks. Someone who was either sadistic or an imbecile, your pick, had put into the syllabus the fact of testing the candidates on their knowledge of La Princesse de Clèves. I don’t know if you’ve often had the opportunity to discuss with the office clerk her feelings on La Princesse de Clèves. Just picture the scene! As for me, I read it so long ago there’s a good chance I be failing.
And again, the following year, in 2008, from the Ministry of Finances:
Les premières victimes de l’organisation actuelle, ce sont les fonctionnaires. Innombrables sont ceux qui m’ont dit: à quoi ça sert qu’on se donne du mal, on a l’impression que tout le monde s’en moque! Et la qualité de vie d’un fonctionnaire, ça compte aussi. C’est tout ce que nous engageons sur la mobilité, sur la reconnaissance du mérite, sur la valorisation de l’expérience, sur la possibilité pour quelqu’un d’assumer sa promotion professionnelle sans passer un concours ou faire réciter par coeur La Princesse de Clèves! Ca compte aussi dans la qualité de vie d’un fonctionnaire?»
The first victims of the current model are the public servants. Countless of them told me: what’s the point of putting in the effort, if we feel nobody cares? The quality of life of a public servant, it matters too. And hence everything we are putting forward on mobility, on merit-based reward, on the value given to experience, on the opportunity of getting promoted without having to recite by heart the Princesse de Clèves! It does matter in the quality of life of a public servant, right?
A few months later, that year, he finally said to a younger audience:
Pourquoi on n’en tiendrait pas compte? Ca vaut autant… que de savoir par coeur La Princesse de Clèves… Enfin, j’ai rien contre… enfin, bon, enfin… C’est parce que j’avais beaucoup souffert sur elle…
Why shouldn’t we value this? It matters as much as… as knowing by heart the Princesse de Clèves… Well, I don’t have anything against… but, I mean, you know… I suffered quite a lot on her.
This rather peculiar obsession with a book which, for the past two centuries, had not been the object of much public debate, left the wider audience at best discombobulated, at worst irritated.
The Princesse de Clèves is a French short novel, published anonymously in 1678 and generally attributed, though on shaky ground (see my research note on the subject), to Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette, an extremely well read and well connected Parisian aristocrat (see my paper on the subject) of the second half of the century. It was immediately acclaimed by the readership of its time, and became a classic, celebrated almost unequivocally since the 18th century. It is often considered, not only as a perfect example of the short narrative fiction of the classical age, but also a striking instance of female authorship. The book is sometimes dubbed, in the context of French literature, the first modern novel and the first psychological novel. Moreover, because it is short and particularly illustrative of 17th century literature, it is very regularly studied and featured in compulsory reading lists, from secondary to higher education.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments were framed by two specific political issues and a wider the context. The wider context was the perceived lack of respect of the politician for high culture, quite to the contrast of its predecessors in the presidential function. President Sarkozy was unfavorably compared to President Chirac and his passion for the Japanese fine arts, and to President Mitterand, who would discuss his literary tastes, including the Princesse de Clèves, during interviews. In the same spirit, it is worth noting President Macron has been very careful to orchestrate the celebration of his rather tenuous intellectual relationship with philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
The two specific political issues were on the one hand the financing of certain sectors of higher education and, on the second hand, the reform of public services. In several speeches, President Sarkozy explained how preposterous it was, according to him, that the general public would finance, through tax payers’ money, subjects of supposedly no interest to anyone but a few ethereal scholars, and, more to the point, with little relevance to the market economy. Among such subjects one was to find, unsurprisingly, not so much theoretical physics or speculative mathematics, but French literature and, above all, the classical study of Greek and Latin.
The reform of the public service, on the other hand, was supposed to scale back on the use of open and competitive examinations, very much the norm when hiring public servants in France. The point was to make the hiring process both more flexible and less permanent. More flexible, because it would be contract based, rather than covered by a general, national status, and less permanent, because contractual workers would enjoy less protection from labor law. And it so happens to a substantial number of these competitive examinations featured a test of general knowledge, of which a large part was devoted to the humanities. Hence the attacks against the Princesse de Clèves.
How Nicolas Sarkozy came to choose specifically this book as his scapegoat for the entire system may have been a matter of sheer coincidence. Indeed, it would appear his personal secretary failed at one such examination, because she was unable to name the author of La Princesse de Clèves (see the documents compiled on the subject by the International Society for the Study of Early Modern Women). As one of the specialists of this book and this author myself, I must say her ignorance is quite forgivable, if you consider that there exists no strong agreement, among scholars, on this particular issue of authorship.
Be that as it may, the relentless attacks by President Sarkozy were not left unanswered. In fact, they sparked quite the reaction. Writer Régis Jauffret suggested on television members of the general public flood the Elysee Palace with copies of La Princesse de Clèves, while public readings of the novel were organized in several cities in France, most notably in front of the Panthéon in Paris, at the initiative of members of the Comédie-Française. Editorials and open letters flourished, sales sparked, teachers of French literature protested. A play was written, and then an other one, and then there was a bad movie, and then a good movie (see my paper on movie adaptations of the book and my research note on Sauder’s documentary). Not to mention countless workshops and conferences. One could even print a badge stating “I Read the Princesse de Clèves” and wear it at the Paris book fair.
Never, to my knowledge, had a work of art of the 17th century been the subject of so much controversy in France, and this controversy was, by and large, indifferent to the actual content of the text, despite some attempt to suggest it was deliberately targeted by the president due to its criticism of the court of Henri II or of its supposed feminism (see my paper on the subject). The Princesse of Clèves was a symbol, and it was the symbol of the value of literature.
That the book was in fact not all that popular among students (and even teachers, for that matter), and often considered boring and antiquated, was hardly discussed at all. The symbolic violence of presenting the epitome of high culture, enjoyed by an ever narrowing elite, as self-evidently a work of general interest was left entirely unexplored, saved for the remarkable documentary by Régis Sauder entitled Nous, Princesses de Clèves, which dealt with the latent racism and classism of the whole thing, and for a protest song by Alexandra Roos and Arnaud Viviant.
The “Oaristys” Controversy (2017-2019)
The “Oaristys” Controversy is somewhat smaller in scale, as the text does not enjoy the same status as La Princesse de Clèves, and as the conflict involves almost exclusively a small subset of literary students and their teachers. The whole issue revolves around a poem by 18th century writer André Chénier, inspired by Theocritus. The poem, in pastoral genre, is a dialogue between Daphnis, a shepherd, and Naïs, a shepherdess. Daphnis is intent on having sexual intercourse with Naïs, which he presents as a form of engagement, or even wedding, as was still indeed customary at the time. Naïs, who is devoted Diana, the goddess of virginity, tries to push Daphnis away, but with little success. The intercourse eventually happens, and there starts the controversy.
Along with others of Chénier’s poems, the “Oaristys” is featured on the reading list for the 2017-2018 agrégation de lettres modernes. The agrégation de lettres modernes is the most prestigious competitive examination in the field of French language and literature. Originally designed to qualify candidates for teaching in secondary and higher education, it is more generally seen as a sign of excellence in the field. The success rate in 2018 was 8.8%, with only half of the registered candidates going as far as actually showing up for the tests, after a year of preparation.
In this context, the prestige of the agrégation is intertwined with the prestige of the texts on its compulsory reading list. This list is divided in two parts: a little less than half of it is dedicated to two themes in comparative literature, with foreign works, and the rest to French literature, from the medieval era to present days. The reading list of the agrégation is both built on the literary canon and contributing to the building of this canon. It puts forward what is considered to be the most challenging, interesting or representative works of each century. Each book is supposed to be worthy of a full length dissertation by the candidate, an argumentative essay which can run up to twenty pages long.
As is usually the case in the French education system, the feelings of the candidates have little importance. These essays are not meant to show a personal appreciation for the literary work at hand, but rather to comment on a general issue of literature, as it applies to a particular text. Here is an example from 2017:
Réfléchissant au traitement de l’amour chez Ronsard, Michel Jeanneret écrit que ce poète “éprouve la dilatation et la dispersion du moi comme l’occasion, ludique ou joyeuse, d’explorer différents modes d’être. Le bien n’est pas dans la concentration, mais dans la dissémination et l’ouverture. Alors que le mouvement ordinaire, dans l’amour, est de chercher l’union, la tendance, ici, est au contraire de démultiplier l’un et de le projeter vers d’autres vies. Les priorités s’en trouveraient presque renversées : au lieu que la métamorphose soit au service de l’amour, l’amour sert de prétexte à la métamorphose”.
Michel Jeanneret, Perpetuum mobile, Macula, Argo
Dans quelle mesure ces propos éclairent-ils votre lecture des Amours de 1553, de Ronsard ?
On the subject of love in Ronsard’s work, Michel Jeanneret writes that the poet “regards the dilatation and the dispersion of the self as an opportunity to explore, either playfully or joyously, various ways of being. The good is not in what is concentrated, but rather in what is disseminated and open. Whereas the ordinary instinct, in love, is to seek unity, the trend, here, is on the contrary to multiply the one and project it into other lives. The priorities are almost turned upside down: the metamorphosis is not in the service of love, rather love is an alibi for the metamorphosis.”
Michel Jeanneret, Perpetuum mobile, Macula, Argo
To what extent does this quote shed light on your reading of Ronsard’s Amours (1533)?
As such, the essay is more a matter of sheer knowledge and, above all, mastery of a specific academic rhetoric, than of inventiveness in literary interpretation. It is therefore of a paramount importance that candidates walk on the narrow path implicitly set for them by the jury, and deduce from previous sessions what is acceptable and what is not. Should you offer a sociological commentary of the author of a given book? Should you highlight sexual innuendos? Should you explicitly described this or that text as racist?
These types of questions are sometimes put to the jury in a diversity of manners, either formally and informally. There are meetings between teachers who are helping candidates prepare and members of the jury, and sometimes, but very rarely, candidates team up to inquire about a specific issue. Such was the case for the “Oaristys”, when, in November 2017, an open letter, written mostly, although not exclusively, by candidates, was addressed to the jury, with one very specific question: in the poem, may one say Daphnis raped Naïs?
The open letter strongly suggests that this is the most obvious interpretation of the text, and several scholars specialized in the study of 18th century French literature agree, as I do myself. But several others see the matter in quite a different way. According to them, using the concept of rape to describe this text is a mistake, because it does not take into account the specific, historically situated understanding of gendered dynamics in 18th century erotic interactions. Although this argument is weak for several reasons we do not have the time to explore here, it was supported by prominent scholars with access to a somewhat influential website devoted to the study of literature, Transitions
A more refined version of the same point amounts to say that the poem may or may not be about a rape, but that we should refrained from assigning a definitive meaning to it, for fear of reducing its literary potential. It was proposed for instance by Hélène Merlin-Kajman. Hence the controversy.
It was further fueled by two conferences. One, from December 13 to 15 2018, entitled “Trauma and Literature” (“Littérature et Trauma”), was organized by the proponents of the not-rape-but-maybe-rape theory. This conference was larger in scope, but, in the course of this psychoanalytical fest, two speakers advocating for trigger warning in the teaching of literature, who were also signatories of the open letter, Anne-Claire Marpeau and Anne Grand d’Esnon, were invited to present their thoughts on the subject (edit: the latter one was alone to present their paper, as Marpeau was unable to attend). I am told this went moderately well, and that they were unsuccessful in convincing their audience of the value of trigger warnings and of the pertinence of calling a rape a rape.
The other conference, in January 2019, was set up by some of the people involved in the original open letter. Under the title “Desire, Consent and Sexual Violence in Literature” (“Désir, consentement et violences sexuelles en littérature”), it focused on early modern French literature and investigated the opportunity to use supposedly 21st century concepts, such as consent or rape culture, to describe texts from the past. All of the texts are now published online, on a website untitled Malaises dans la lecture (“Uneasy Reads”).
To sum up, first there was an open letter, then two academic events, supported by two different websites. One tried to frame the controversy as purely an academic disagreement on a series of technical aspects of literary interpretation, such as text openness, endemic categories or the beauty of evil, while the other viewed it more in a socio-cultural light and as part of a larger debate on the morals and the practices of academics in general and teachers in particular.
The first position is clearly at odds with the social concern for the fostering of greater accountability for sexual violence. Moreover, it relies on a self-contradictory argument. On the hand, one should preserve the openness of a text, in order to preserve its humanistic relevance to the society. On the other hand, one should refrain to assert the relevance of a text to contemporary society, by framing it merely as an archaeological artifact. It is a classical attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too, of wanting literature to have a high moral value, while abstracting it at the same time from the moral discussion.
The Suppliants Controversy (2019)
On March 25, 2019, Philippe Brunet, was supposed to stage his version of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants in the Great Amphitheater of the Sorbonne, in Paris. It did not go as planed, as the actors were prevented to perform, and indeed to even enter the building, by activists from several organizations, who thought the play in general and Brunet’s rendition of it were afrophobic and colonialist. The crux of the matter was that some of the actors were to wear black body paint and black masks, a costume which these organizations saw as reminiscent of the infamous practice of the blackface.
The blackface is a griming practice of, among others, White American comedians, which was mostly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, in a diversity of acts. It consisted of putting on black make-up and other cosmetic props, and to pose as an African or Afro-American person. Performances were stereotypical to the extreme, and served to promote a racist agenda. As the sensibility to cultural racism has mainstreamed in the late 20th and the 21st centuries, blackfaced performances have largely gone out of fashion. Framing Brunet’s show as a blackfaced performance is therefore equating him to the retrograde slavery and post-slavery racist and white supremacist cultural mores of America.
The controversy was considerable, and went from the expected conservative tribunes trying to present the fight against racism as a form of racism itself, an all-too-familiar ploy of far-right rhetoric, to a rather abstruse discussion on the archaeology of classical Greek theater. The most scholarly defense of Brunet was twofold: on the one hand, it argued that his costumes bore little resemblance with examples of the American blackface, which is debatable, and on the other hand, it reconstructed the dramatic practices of Aeschylus’ time, implicitly stating that, if Brunet’s staging was historically correct, then it couldn’t be racist.
The second part of this argument was by far the most prevalent in the media. It was tantamount to say that classical Greek culture is always humanistic, and forms a model to which we should aspire — certainly a time-honored proposition. Influential stage director Ariane Mnouchkine, from the Théâtre du Soleil, defended Brunet and accused the activists of censorship. Some tribunes, written by intellectuals, scholars, writers or stage directors, went as far as equating them to a Stalinist oppression.
This reaction is severely flawed in at least two respects.
First, it is evidently oblivious to a necessary aspect of censorship, which is that it is used by those in power to silence those who would threatened this power. The power imbalance is at the core of the concept of censorship. An efficient demonstration in front of an amphitheater is to censorship what an instance of street fighting is the State military power, except that the right to demonstrate is in theory constitutionally protected, while in most instances, street fighting is not. Ironically enough, on May 21, Brunet’s Suppliants was eventually performed in the amphitheater, in front of the ministers for culture and higher education, as well as foreign ambassadors, with no black masks and less black body paint. The officials praised the performers and the directors for their brave resistance to censorship, forgetting, it would seem, that they were the ones in power, that the play was just performed in the most prestigious university of the country, and in front of several of France most influential dramatic artists. In that respect, many French intellectuals took several pages out of the far-right handbook: claiming to be censored by their critics and claiming it from exceptional positions of power in the media, the theater, and the Academia, and equating reformists to the evils of communism, one step away, and in some instances no step away at all, from the ever more popular conspiracy theory of cultural marxism.
The second flaw is the circular proposition that classical Greek culture can not be racist, because it is humanistic, and that it is humanistic mostly because it is classical Greek culture. This argument is by and large the equivalent of reading La Princesse de Clèves in front of the Panthéon, as if the text was in and of itself so evidently important, that no one would either think to question its value. The Greek proposition is perplexing to the extreme, inasmuch as a significant part of the teaching of Greek culture is devoted to the issue of Greek racial and social hierarchies, and of the prevalent xenophobia of the classical Greek culture. It is indeed bewildering that intellectuals who would require from their students that they learn about the Greek concepts of slavery, barbarism, or metic would so readily dismiss the argument that staging Aeschylus’ in the ancient Greek way may perhaps make the play all the more racist for it.
In these three controversies, the failure of many French academics, and more largely many French intellectuals, to bring to the debate table the same kind of careful, methodically analytical mindset they would hopefully apply to their own personal work is patent. Be it by thinking a three centuries old novel is so immediately relevant to modern times that it is beyond question everyone not only could but should read it, or by arguing a rape is not a rape because it comes from the 18th century, they let their socially acquired evaluation of literature cloud their judgment.
This failure is worrying in three ways.
Firstly, it demonstrates that the skills and knowledge acquired through training and research in humanities are not transferable outside of the Academia, and that one may be a well respected scholar, and remain unable to engage critically and in a productive fashion with diverging opinions. If we consider that one of the main arguments against the neo-liberal utilitarian agenda of not funding higher education in arts and humanities, is that in these two fields, one learns how to think critically and put things into a wider perspective, we must admit that this argument, in the light of these controversies, appears at best optimistic, at worst hypocritical.
Secondly, it shows a striking although predictable unwillingness, from artists and humanities academics, to engage with the scientific literature in the field of the sociology of culture. Either humanities departments are so insulated they are unable to appropriate several decades of international research on the social construction of cultural values and cultural hierarchies, either they willfully ignore it. Either way, this should be addressed by a brushed up curriculum, more open to interdisciplinary training.
Thirdly, it suggests there exists some proximity between the mainstream academic discourse on the value of certain literary works and elements of the conservative, or even reactionary rhetoric of the far-right. For several years now, it has become fashionable to see the far-right under the sole guise of populism, and this may have rendered us oblivious to its more intellectual overtones. Yet, it is the fact that the defense of high culture is an integral part of far-right rhetoric. If the reverse is not necessarily true — that is, if it is possible to defend high culture and not promote far-right ideology —, this should at least inspire us some care in the conduct of such a defense.
It is worth nothing the situation I have described is by no mean specific to the French Academia. Issues of sexual violence and literary texts have been for instance widely discussed in the United Kingdom and the United States, around the opportunity of providing trigger warnings for the study of some of Ovid’s and Shakespeare’s texts. Dr. Sarah E. Bond unfortunately experienced the connection between classical studies, painting, racism, and far-right rhetoric, when she was harassed as the result of her acclaimed 2017 tribune “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color”. The list goes on.
In conclusion, I argue that humanities scholars in the French Academia are in a dire need of a day of reckoning. The value of the arts and literature they are studying and promoting has lost its character of self-evidence. Defending this value by defending its self-evidence, while presenting their adversaries as trigger happy censors or ignorant fools, is not only intellectually weak by the very standards they themselves set for others, but it is also, as a group, the shortest way to professional irrelevance.