What Is Literature’s Now?

Laurent Dubreuil


f course, it is impossible. To define literature—if by this we mean finding a sense that is fixed or given once and for all—nobody’ll do it. “Literature is—” has nothing of an easy beginning. Should we consequently admit that “it is literature” is always a vague or vain expression? I look at the 1973 special issue of New Literary History devoted to the question “What is Literature?” Among other analyses, I find in Tzvetan Todorov’s article the idea of an indefinable literature, which “therefore” could have never really existed.1 Notwithstanding, the ones who doubted literature have not effaced it. Its death cannot be drawn from the failure to delimit its meaning. The lack of so-called rational and integral designation does not even pertain solely to literature. If we aim to use only univocal terms, we shall get rid of numerous words. Are “history,” “metaphysics,” or “politics” firmly and unanimously definable? As for many other substantives, we always need to “clarify”—which, indeed, we do through acts of enunciation. In a discussion, we can simultaneously agree and disagree. All of us do not always mean the same thing; language differs from a merely referential communication. Before deducing from the indefinable some big ideas about the “inexistent” literature, we should investigate what definition, concept, and signification are. Dictionaries are deceptive in that they claim to give exhaustive and delimited repertories of meanings. Furthermore, we ought to consider afresh the very category of meaning. A word does not mechanically refer to a discrete series of meanings; it only signifies something through enunciation. Almost nothing exists in “natural language” that does not bypass the boundaries of lexical or conceptual definition. This includes literature. However, it does not imply that we should renounce literature or literature’s name. Signification occurs beyond the frontiers of sense. Resisting rationalization or definition is what happens in thought and in language. Such an issue is worth a new exposition; all the more so because signification is a literary matter. Not
* I want to thank Ralph Cohen for his generous offer to publish this article, Laurent Ferri for his always excellent comments, Ioana Vartolomei, Cory Browning, as well as the editors of New Literary History, who patiently helped me to improve my paper.
New Literary History, 2007, 38: 43–70


new literary history

that literature possesses the exclusive privilege of creating signification, but in going through language, it necessarily depends on significance. There has been another reason for refusing literature. The point of departure here is a social and political analysis according to which “literature” is mainly or merely a legitimizing fiction. Literature would make acceptable a hierarchical separation between the privileged—and the others. The privileged would be the figure of the genial artist or the audience (bourgeoisie, professors, official interpreters, patriarchal power)—the others: “passive” readers without any creativity, proletarians (to whom a subculture is reserved), illiterates, “mute women,” or the colonized. Especially in the 1970s, the critique against literature’s social vices was often associated with the concern for the lack of rational definition. For instance, Todorov’s interest in genres appeared as a way of undoing the social separation between legitimate writers and ordinary speakers. By and by, Todorov abandoned such a theoretical remedy, to the benefit of a broader discourse analysis where neither genre nor literature plays the major role. Nevertheless, the suspicion against literature’s social power persists today. Now, I maintain that we could have recourse to stigmatized words, and then voice something else. The social-historical is not a receptacle: in it, there is no sense or end to literature. The grammar of political agendas, the collection of lexical definitions, are no valid reasons to simply erase literature. Now, there is a now. Depending on the part of the world we are in, we shall find one or another argument more alive. Because of my personal and professional situation, I mostly explore the interzone of French and American universities. Whereas political approaches seem strong and capital throughout the United States, many French “experts” avoid asking the question of literature because of scholarly hyperspecialization. In many instances in France, inquiring about an author, a genre, or a theme is a consensual way of shunning the literary. But both options are decidedly transnational. We could at most underline local trends, and immediately remark possible combinations. Linked to suspectful rationalism, social critique sometimes gives an inverted image to reaction. Hence the scene of contemporary scholarship gives us two main choices (ineffable and naturally legitimate poetry vs. inconsistent and socially oppressive language) and a multitude of mixed positions. Above all, this theoretical trap conditions our own discourse—far more than literature itself. We had to expose the present configuration in order to leave aside the avoidable antinomies. Each time we speak, let us situate our speech. But once this is done, everything still needs to be done. The picture of the institutional and scholarly locus helps me clarify my goals and desires. I believe in the possibility of qualifying (not defining) the signification of literature. It is also for literature that I am writing this text about the works’ weird temporality. The now of What is literature now? is

what is literature’s now?


linked to a specific time of literary criticism, from 1973 to 2007. It also allows us to understand literature’s now. There is no need for literature to have a nature, a preformed essence nor an irreducible concept. Literature does not exist before but rather after itself: we reconstruct and designate it without exhausting its signification. I also speak after and to others; though I speak. As much as the commitment to literature happens in the particular or the singular, it is addressed to a beyond. I shall speak literature, and you have to enact, believe, deny, displace what I am saying. The force of affirmation does not require grounding in the universal nor the incontestable: its intensity relies on its gesture. I want to reread here how oeuvres each time undo and redo literature. In this article, I shall dwell on “literature’s literature” for critical reasons. This point of view is not supposed to be unique, nor prescriptive. Each oeuvre is its own and first metatext; but it is more than that, in spite of this phenomenon’s relevance for our present purpose. Even speaking of itself, the literary text exceeds its self-presentation. Such a move gives us the idea of the critical opening we need to accomplish. Always and now. Let us speak literature now.2

Literature Comes Afterwards
This now is said the moment after. Here is a proposition to begin after the beginning: “literature comes afterwards.” This three-word phrase is somewhat different from the general opinion among philosophers (and critics). I do not believe in a literature coming from an obscure or sacred source. We should stop thinking it in terms of anteriority, whatever value the latter could have. Literature is not a true voice emerging from the origin, the preconscious imaginary, the prelogical mind or primitive thought. In many respects, the twentieth century has seen the triumph of doctrines founded on the moment before. European phenomenology has especially insisted on the poetical Urgrund, rooted in Sein with Martin Heidegger or directly connected to reduction in Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Psychoanalytical readings also contributed to the obsession with the anterior, sometimes even giving new life to old biographism thanks to a systematic exploration of the subjective author’s past. A shining example, surrealism consolidated the idea of an inspiration coming from a preceding obscurity. Surrealism functioned as a catalyst for new and audacious syntheses of previous theories, such as in Aimé Césaire’s works. When, in 1970, Césaire states that “true poetry is prophetical” and “primitive,” that he is “interested in Greek primitive poetry, in Greek primitive tragedy,”3 he condenses the legend of the (post)romantic image and the reevaluation of the literary primitive mostly due to the “Homeric question” in philology. In demanding the “vates”4 to plunge into his own

according to which literary achievement and talent are functions of the great leap backward. This brilliant alchemy fabricates a writer who is at once prophetic. We are facing a contradiction that we must keep as a contradiction. It also overestimates originarity. Typography (the capital letters) is a supplementary sign showing that the “natal poet” does not seek to conceal the quote. preconscious. So there appears a combination between art and primitive thought. In this case and many others. Nonetheless. One of the most notorious is the capital “COMIQUE ET LAID” that refers to a verse of The Flowers of Evil. Indeed. Should one consider Baudelaire as another primitive. negritude is a primitivism that adopts “analogical reasoning”6 in the wake of African tradition. prelogical. the very mechanism of quotation would be an obstacle to the image of a pure dictation from the depths.” Charles Baudelaire compares the poet with the bird. literature does not only speak after itself. primitive. in an indistinct and antepredicative source. Still.5 To Césaire. In France. the claim for origin implies the acknowledgment of the literary’s posteriority. which comes after other speeches. The so-called “African” ana-logic. It is full of spoken words. the primitivist has references. Césaire speaks after Baudelaire.7 but the poet is not only a “natif-natal.”8 While he returns to his place of birth. Always the first. pretheoretical. the doctrine of the original remains the golden standard for a large majority of journalists and paper-merchants. Césaire goes further than André Breton did. Césaire adds a third term to the comparison: the “Nigger. But eulogism becomes perilous if it holds literature in the sole moment of creation. This latter aspect is certainly very “modern. Césaire wrote the famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. this supposed predisposition to poetry. some writers have fortunately more ruse than the rules of the market. is said with the words of the past. Numerous quotations are to be found in Césaire’s text. It is a manner of forgetting or undermining the importance of reading. an- . maxims. It happens that this creed is disconnected from literature. But for now. we are definitely dealing with laudatory discourse. More than that. one that may also permit the oeuvre’s signification.9 In “The Albatross. and sayings of the remnants of treatises in history.46 new literary history automatic fund. Césaire has recourse to words already uttered. Whereas he points to a radical primitivity. and even learned by heart by thousands of students in the French school system. In this vast and heterogeneous production. we shall only admit this: what we name quotation or intertextuality is a clue to the literature’s moment-after.” It finds a corollary in the still regnant doxa of originality. the current editorial market is dominated by narrations of childhood and self-evocation of the self as the self.” Thus. he also speaks in a language previously used by others.

Moreover. they have been used as quasitextbooks in Senegalese elementary . For instance. and psychiatry. On the contrary. The same move governs literature’s “afterwards. he sometimes begins with a common opinion and expression. called illiterate (by literati). They ratify the existence of different uses of language and develop a nonsystematic response to utterances and to registers. After this phrase. which could serve as the magic origin. I shall not thoroughly examine the case of oral literature. Diop also writes after numerous transcriptions made by missionaries and colonial administrators of oral tales and stories. philosophy. But I just want to note that tale-tellers. “Mother Crocodile” starts with a gnome about the stupidity of crocodiles. popular sentences and sayings are more numerous than in the first volume: they gradually replace the character of the griot as a point of reference for the narration.”12 One also finds a proverb in the first line of “The Calabashes of Kouss” (“‘The man who hangs his goods in a tree hates anyone who glances upwards. weaves together the tales he heard about maxims and sayings. The oral narrations that justify and explain a common expression are here eminently interesting. One could read Diop’s volumes as collections of children’s stories: indeed. he also acts as a character in the two volumes given by Diop. it is not by chance that Birago Diop introduces his African tales as the ones told by the griot Amadou Koumba. The gap between everyday speech and scholarly discourse is decisive.’”11 Diop’s tale originates in an oral controversy between Koumba the human storyteller and Golo the animal “griot.’ said Amadou Koumba.what is literature’s now? 47 thropology. The stories come from a remote past but they are given after the griot spoke. to what is called “literature” in France.” Thus.16 Not only is the quest for childhood necessarily something ulterior to what is sought. He is the “incomplete child”15 who. Diop thus accepts some “scientific” explanations. regularly refer to the artificiality of their way of telling—and to other kinds of speech. but the recreation of Koumba’s tales are introduced as a vast and displaced response—to African maxims. Diop immediately adds: “‘That is not my opinion. he equally follows Léopold Sédar Senghor in a rediscovery of the “black soul. ‘That is what Golo the monkey says. The latter is a narrator in the mise en abyme of the Tales. to colonial transcriptions.10 Koumba is not alleged for the mere purpose of reassuring fiction or respecting ethnographic realities.’”13) In the New Tales. and to theoretical elucidations. Diop depersonalizes and inscribes his own work in the wake of a more clearly collective creation. in his own way.14 In doing so. He is not a source first mentioned and then omitted in the narration. This new anonymity converges with the major trend among folklorists who—like many nineteenth-century “Homerists”—emphasized the Volk as a whole.” Yet he breaks with classical ethnography in deliberately putting his subjectivity in the heart of fiction.

it gives them a shape or a pattern. These mutations have a very singular value in literature. readings. An “objective” observer who would simply like to forget this aspect would certainly have no insight of what literature can do. Some could find my point a bit too language-centered. to recognize features shared by the Tales and the society he studies. . I do not doubt the importance of the weaver’s art in Ouakam.18 for the global understanding of Diop’s self-description as a rhapsode. but it speaks them. techniques. the effect of the latter on the former is different from the regime of what we would call metamorphosis of speeches. It is true that I choose to consider literature as not dependent on culture—another fabulous term. But as for philosophy. That does not mean that fine arts. or “linguistic” as it is erroneously said. literature not only speaks of them. Yet. which more and more happens to be culture—at least in the last two decades. en passant. music. the metamorphosis of the griot’s performance and colonial report into literary tale written in French transforms the very matter of these discourses—whereas wool and weave stay the same and independent of Diop’s artistry. Still. We have just begun asking what such metamorphoses of discourses and speeches imply. theory also betrays individual (or sometimes singular) options and decisions. except that it is made with language. and discourses. I am just mentioning a common double point: the word culture as fixed idea (in spite of divergent meanings). Such a subsumption is structurally identical to the ancient pedagogical usage that aimed to make cultured individuals know ad hoc quotations and rhetorical loci. tongues.48 new literary history schools. or algebra have absolutely nothing to do with literary oeuvre. these tales respond to preceding words and phrases. Besides. Senegal. At the same time. or proverb. it sometimes renews their disposition or length. and the dissolution of the literary into something else (portable knowledge of the dominant class or collective production). In this sense. In that case. and life. journalistic comment. But that is something. It is absolutely possible to discard such issues. As literature. anthropology. For literature is made of language. I do not ignore that cultural studies are almost always contrary to this normative ideal of social reproduction. Literature evokes arts. An anthropologist has the right to comment on Birago Diop. Even voiced in an assertoric tone.17 It is sometimes said that nobody knows what literature is. we must remember that Diop has already shown a possible relation between science and subjective fictivity in writing and assembling these collections. one will suppose a globalizing concept. to prefer speaking literature to speaking of literature. to underline the intermingling of inventions in postcolonial cultures. Literature as mutation is produced by a shock between writings. he would play the farce role of an “expert” unable to remark the literary transformation of his own disciplinary discourse.

Apart from culture. Bal’s defense of interdisciplinarity. It indicates “the limits of knowledge”23 in such a way that it could play a new role if nowadays researchers truly want to be interdisciplinary. Those of us who dissert on books (writers.19 The unexpected meetings it gathers makes her “travel guide” fascinating. material. and her recourse to case studies are other remarkable positions. In spite of exorbitant pretensions. but once learned. Cultural studies free literature from its own isolation in confronting it with the nonscholarly words it includes.” They “look like words. one day or another. Even if creation were governed by anteriority. Still. it would not equal the entire process of literature. . they seem to be words held in a rigid semantic form (operative conceptualization21). To the ones who live in speaking. no real culinary art nor manual techniques—if all these elements are able. Hence. and artifact tends to be undermined. literature teaches us to distrust word-concepts and to seek another kind of signification. the immense difference between visual. Mieke Bal focuses on how concepts travel from poetry to photography.” she says. literary oeuvre interferes with the logic of all -logy (even the one questioning this picture or this book). In her own exposition of cultural analysis. literary reading is irreducibly an unsettling and necessary experience. for its fate lies in defecting other modes of words and speeches. there is no literary specificity—but also no divergence between love songs and comics. But the risk is to consider all utterances as a whole.20 As a matter of fact. they are apt to be exceeded by subjects who paradoxically break the coercion’s frame. culturalism is not devoted “by principle” to the destruction of specificity.22 The central category in this travel notebook is borrowed from philosophy and linguistics. In coming after scholarly discourse. I cannot help being troubled by her permanent use of “concepts. Now. to be unified in a single form (infrastructure or global body). Furthermore. from theater to ethnography. But one needs to be aware of the deformations caused by literature to the rule of discourses (which comprehends cultural studies). her attention to details. which lives in reading writing. Just as painting can modify vision. interpreters. and Bal lists the items of her “rough guide” as series of lexical rubrics or wordconcepts. The laws of literate culture exert a social violence. literary oeuvre is always more than an object of analysis. What Birago Diop says to the Africanist anthropologist is also accurate for Mieke Bal. literature is a gate to refection of disciplines. Reading’s Co-presence of Past and Present Literature includes reading.what is literature’s now? 49 Both attitudes have some qualities.

” The text begins with the assertion “You have been living now for a long time and there is nothing you do not know. I just want to point out the method of reading that the first verse already delivers.” 26 What writing creates is possibly enacted by reading. not even a sophisticated one. Literature is not a highway code. He also sees the breach in the body of knowledge that “Sortes Vergilianae” describes. In the notes taken by one of his students during a class on Homer. In that case. figuration tends to be indirect. We are additionally led to perform it. to reform our own reading. Such a figuration emerges from a preface. in Renaissance France. or any other allegory. But we are not only spectators of the revelation. “the words themselves and the parts of a discourse are nothing but wax. While our knowledge is changing. friends.50 new literary history journalists.”24 The reader is solicited throughout the poem each time he reads this repeated you. Dorat admits that the wax Ulysses’s comrades use to fill their ears refers to the oeuvre’s own materiality. Among other names. given the historical transformations of the literary critic due to American “deconstructive scholarship” and to the place de Man had in this process. since “one wrote in wax. the very category of “allegory of reading” is attached to Paul de Man’s works. we find that the episode of the Sirens contains an evocation of the uses and limits of reading the Odyssey. revealing much more than any of you were intended to know. Whatever the solution to the enigma is in Ashberry’s text.25 So is posed the question of negativity and knowledge in different “nows”—a problem closer to ours. a chapter’s title. now. Even description of writing by writing is reached by reading. Reading goes through text without stopping there. and goes again. In America. To paraphrase the fifth verse: “Then the text opened up. Nonetheless.”28 So Ulysses—who orders his comrades to use wax but who personally wants to hear the Sirens’ song—becomes the allegorical figure of a reader both able to understand the matter of writing (words .”27 Hence. the very idea of an allegory of reading refers back to ancient practices. and no that the first verse conveys is then developed throughout the poem. Reading is not decoding. professors. who was. such as Pierre de Ronsard or Joachim du Bellay. as a matter of fact. Besides—specifically in literature—texts construct a figuration of reading that incites us to take one path or another. Here is a quasi-invisible way of “advising” readers in John Ashbery’s poem “Sortes Vergilianae. I shall just quote Jean Dorat. a suggestion is made that invites us to read the trajectory of signifiers as well. The phonic association between know. It is quite normal. it then comes back to it. more compelling and more discrete at once. and so forth) are expressing ourselves from within our readings. the professor of classics for the “Pléiade” new generation of poets and humanists. so that temporality is altered. a sudden allusion to the audience in the body of the narrative.

Dorat’s explanation might seem less convincing than de Man’s. Ovid’s oeuvre will have to change forever in a metamorphic universe. Nonetheless. Let us show it briefly with Ovid’s Metamorphoses—this book whose title I had previously used as a critical category. recitations. Thanks to the insertion of his long monologue. To many.29 The hero’s attitude is a model for the interpreter who should read texts by combining scrupulous attention to “philological” detail with metapoetical comments. Let us add that this open prescription can only be found in reading the accumulation of transformations—in seeking in Ovid more than a “myth. allegory of reading is not exclusively intrinsic to an historical period (the reader’s and/or the writer’s): it is susceptible to occur here and there. the writing that is held “high above everlasting stars” echoes a new metamorphosis (15. Thus. At the end of the Metamorphoses.”30 Nothing—including time.872) such an oeuvre.31 But furthermore. As cultural analysis could tell us. An exception in its turn. there is here a double reference to the monumental system of glory in Rome and to the ancient necessity of perpetuating a name. It will be modified in readings. the prodigious transformations that had occurred in the text thus far receive a new value: they are extraordinary examples of the ordinary law of cosmic perpetual mutation. If the poet’s body will die.60). this text commands us to alter it through reading. Is it a question of reading? One could argue that Ovid takes only memory into account—in accordance with the anthropological structure of Roman tradition.32 the last book delivers an explanation of the world’s metamorphic course. the production of the poem allows the author to reach the skies of fame. It will assure that his “name will be indelible” (15. But the very form figuration takes relies on the text’s historical situation and its reader’s moment. By the figure of the “man of Samos” (15. Partisans of intertextuality could also study the manifest reference to Horace. or the print of social convention. The Greek word metamorphoses underlines that this Latin oeuvre responds not so much to Hellenic mythology (it has been partially absorbed into Rome’s rites) but rather to philosophia (especially the pre-Socratics). it is obvious that reading has found its own portrait in literature much before our so-called “postmodern” era. Since it will live forever. Ovid asserts “And now my oeuvre is done. the opus will remain as a “better part of me” (15. the vital perennis (“everlasting”) at the end of the book also evokes an immortality that transformation assures.” a poetic lie. . Ovid adds. and commentaries.875–6). While so many characters of Ovid’s narration have been turned into stars. gods.what is literature’s now? 51 or wax) and hear its hidden meaning (song or literary meaning). Only death could make the opus immutable. But we are reading the end of a very long poem on transformations.876) and his glory will “live” (“vivam” is the last word of the book). Therefore.875). violence—will “abolish” (15.

Errors are able to make you lose your sense or make you lose your strength. I am one of them—must admit that a so-called “total misreading” has no incidence on the fact of literature. and even then. In any case. Literature today plays the role of a warrant for the possible infinity of interpretation. Literalism is nothing more than interpretation forced to annul itself entirely (without being able to succeed). It is well known that canonical novels such as Don Quixote and Madame Bovary enact existential misreadings. But they will not disallow literature. Quarrels arise between purists and orthodox who all pretend to read without reading. they sometimes develop a sort of double-talk. It could be unjust to be turned into a racist (or an antiracist) by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Deconstruction as an intellectual and university movement has deliberately transferred literary . from holy writings to history books. It could be inaccurate to be converted to Satanism by the litanies Baudelaire wrote to the Devil. figuration is above all configuration. the fame of both novels is linked to the affirmation—at the very heart of literature—of reading’s disfiguring. For literature partly identifies with a maximalist mode of interpretation where criteria of exactitude and accuracy could obviously intervene. It is not at all certain that the best way of reading the late Antonin Artaud implies seeking Artaud’s approval. In this matter. in spite of his own claim for “verified readers”33 only. Even nonrelativists—and to put it too briefly. but it also happens. but without having any consequence on the effective reality of reading. In recipes also. literature appears as a particular case. At the same time. reading literally is better than literary reading. If you want to make a cheesecake. which is what makes literature.34 As soon as one remarks hermeneutic necessity here and there. we are not always forced to follow a model. but not instead of cheese) and must conform yourself to the representation of the reader who performs recipes step by step. It could be. the large spectrum of interpretation should not lead to the elaboration of general hermeneutics as did a German “tradition” eminently represented by Hans Georg Gadamer. they will contribute to produce it. Other types of discourses require interpretation and reading. one finds the reader’s figuration expressed by imperative order or advice. Literary reading is something other than reading cookbooks. Apart from the correction of illusion that is so often (and too simply) attributed to Cervantes and Flaubert. Literary texts rarely renounce their power on the modes of reading. That is: you have to limit interpretation to the strict minimum (two extra large eggs could be used instead of three small eggs. from law articles to philosophy.52 new literary history Figuration is not configuration. The latter is not deducted from an ensemble of legitimate practices but precisely from the possibility of uses apparently illegitimate. Let us refer to religious fundamentalism or (in a more carnivalesque fashion) to the multiple “authentically” Trotskyite parties in contemporary France.

it only denies itself in an unproductive manner. but it is generally so discarded that we have to repeat that the thought.” and so on. The presentation of writing through reading does not annul the preexistence of text. After deconstruction’s heroic attempt. Hermeneutics should begin by examining the potentialities of interpretation that discontinuous discourses recommend or represent. it is my sole reading that will make me participate in writing. This is definitely a truism. Nonetheless.35 Whatever its method is supposed to be. Derek Attridge has insisted on “the curious temporality that governs our reading of literature. no reading without a quest for joy or a better life. and allure of literary texts come to us through the reading we make. and vital commitment (such as quixotism. I who read am not producing an oeuvre. “genetic criticism” does not restitute the pure time of writing in publishing manuscripts. and their refusal). If it pretends to be objectively transparent or absolutely scientific. the latter does not exist independently of the ones who compose and read it. If I am not the writer of the text. According to the paradox of succession of time. the literary now is diffracted in different presents: tenses and times of writing. Literature comprehends both writing and reading. Was this a digression? Perhaps not.”36 He states that “the words as we read them produce their effects in the present” (104). the expression “literary reading” is more of an homage to literature than the designation of a consubstantial character. But local hermeneutic action is posterior to the opening of its possibility—even if the latter presupposes the former.what is literature’s now? 53 reading towards discourses that generally tend to limit or prohibit the proliferation of interpretation. By the way. hermeneutics is doomed to tautology when it considers all texts and facts on the same and unified “interpretative” level. In his recent and seminal essay on The Singularity of Literature. so that what is past stays past and is present at the same time. contrary to what is thoughtlessly ingeminated. But I would like to maintain the tendency towards the unlimited in reading that literary texts provoke. reading is no visual operation. a textual edition is a reading.” the “manuscript’s work. those successive instants are not assembled in a linear or teleological manner. trajectory. the historical reality of one or several “authors. They reanimate yesterday through literature’s now. bovarism. Blind people as well as auditors know how to read. constitution of comment. Just as cultural studies have great difficulties in seeing singularities. Furthermore. Each moment is necessitated by the one that follows: there would be no literary writing without audience or readers. Even the author reads (and writes) herself. Problems of “good” or “acceptable” literary commentaries are not at all solved by the acceptance of unlimited reading. steps in reading. From this point of view. Still. literary reading bypasses the technical field of reading. . This tendency does and undoes literature.

after all. In literature. For Benjamin.37 So.”41 Because it was defunct. is what the writing writes. We are now apt to see that Benjamin’s conception of history is a reading. Though he is aware of literature’s “pastness” (105) in what he calls the “act” of reading. which always occur in the present. and the writer continues to die. Benjamin writes “history is the object of a construction whose site is not homogeneous and empty time. lies in performance” (106). co-presence points toward the nonpositive affirmation of a presence ruined by its defect and past. each time it is read. on the other hand. or to identify the latter with history. The rearranging of times in literature’s now is different from historical revenance or variations of the invariant.”40 and he immediately applies this remark to Robespierre’s mobilization of France’s Roman heritage. Such description is relevant for multiple kinds of readings.” Thus. literary reading is additionally determined by the co-presence of past and present. This makes it more difficult to apprehend contemporariness. the critic occults the impossible to the benefit of the happening performance. . Synchrony and contemporary are often taken for pure synonyms. Nothing proves that we shall succeed in formulating it critically. it is less a question of “undecidability”38 than a significant contradiction. These latter phenomena intervene in literary history. and so on. but filled with now [Jetztzeit]. reading is translated as “another writing”. In his fourteenth thesis on the concept of history. This confusion . There. To hold writing and reading.39 But it would be inappropriate to obscure the notion of past in the name of the event. yet I believe that we must take the chance. writing is never over. Hence. present and past is what is at stake in literature. In my phrase. the literary site for the conflagration of times is not the intrusion of yesterday in today (that is: what Benjamin sees in history). Rome could go back and phantomically haunt 1793—in the wake of the historical scheme Jacques Derrida described in Specters of Marx. French contemporary philosophy and Anglo-American theory accord a crucial role to the category of event. no more than reading or vital interpretation. We recognize literary texts as being totally past and thoroughly present. On the threshold of this debate. traditional prerogatives of writing are simply transferred from the author to the reader: the specificity of literary reading is unspecific. Notwithstanding. Attridge chooses to confuse present’s presence and contradictory co-presence. In proposing that literature’s “singularity. the past writer becomes a performer in “another present. Being all past and all present. On the one hand.54 new literary history and I agree.” and that the author wrote “in a different present” (105) than the reader’s. we should not be surprised to find in his book that “reading . . the form of the French Revolution is contingent to the death of “Ancient Rome. the oeuvre lives to the rhythm of literature’s après-coup. Walter Benjamin played a key role.

what is literature’s now? 55 gives birth to the expression of “contemporary literature. Another (more popular) remedy consists in taking things apart. literary oeuvres are at odds with appropriation. in spite of any posterior historical event. History and historicity change what is given by chronology. we know that all of us are not of the same time. literature’s now requires a supplementary upheaval affecting the very manner of thinking contemporariness. that is: extremely singular. and in fact. Such purist and orthodox positions solve reading contradictions by eternalizing texts: what has been uttered once will stay forever as it was. Finally.” if the locution refers to what is published today. In this regard. With “my” words—that are ours—I would try to construct a signification for the extraordinary. Current religious dogmas refuse to ratify the fact that holy writings belong to the past.” Is this use of the word idiomatic? I hesitate. Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains totally valid. History and Temporal Complication What is approached here as “literary reading” could be called “reading in a critical state. now does not indicate the triumph of the present. I do not deny the pertinence of chronology once interpretation reconstructs it. Pound also comes after and before Sophocles or François Villon. That said. Historicizing reading separates the still-relevant from the outdated.42 Yet. It could be meaningful to say that Gertrude Stein. Ezra Pound. there is no urgent need for investigating here “contemporary literature. thus we shall count days and millennia according to the Bible and refuse Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the contrary. some events happen at the same period. But it is the relation between shared features that contributes to specificity. it should have become clear that in my own text. . but his own theory of fascism could raise some doubts about it. Besides the differences between history and chronology. I am more interested in the violent distortion that literature imposes on time. Such a today is an important issue. The literary functions at a high intensity. Genesis’s narrative cannot be adapted. the now I am attributing to literature exceeds “simple presence” as well as “pure present. Aristotelian logic is so perfect that no reform on contradiction will ever be acceptable. Let us quickly quote three examples. S. in these pages. I assume that it could be eminently idiomatic. but I have decided to consider it at a distance for the time being—and to dwell on what is less evident. Were Ezra Pound and Benito Mussolini contemporary? Pound was sure of it.” It is very possible that none of the traits we are drawing belong to “literature proper”. Or: to reexpress what literature can do now. Here. The co-presence of past and present is here in excess. and T. Eliot revolutionize American poetry in approximately the same years.” Undoubtedly.

lists misconceptions or fictions. Many readers do the same with literature. and stubbornness are to be “understood. Classical tragedy comes before and after psychoanalysis.” Mitchell Greenberg sees in Racine’s tragedies a “locus of resistance. historicized pragmatism insists on original reception. A symmetrically inverted image. In concentrating on aesthetic experience here and today. Racine’s oeuvre could explain the very formation of analytical concepts. Racine does not announce nor foresee.” This apologetic attitude finds its own and paradoxical limits in doctrines of complete presentification. and he does not exemplify. Even anticolonialists or people who are not experts in the “history of philosophy” are able to find Hegel’s writings interesting. It is not an excuse. we should attempt to value the troubling experience of the readers who impossibly are in several times. Historiography also revisits the past of historical discipline. the fact that one thing is sometimes more than itself. I am not saying that Racine “intuits” Freud. The double representation of “the unconscious scene” and “the stable fixation of culturally imposed models” (268) situates the tension (or even contradiction) at stake in Racine’s theater. anti-Semitism. Hegel is still read today. monarchism. Greenberg states. is “created by the oscillation between poles of fragmentation and stability. but misogyny.43 Far more problematic than presentification. between the ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ oedipal” (268). one will gradually get rid of all past. ignorance). and celebrates what will be “possessed for ever” (to use Thucydides’ phrase). The profane reader’s joy is confiscated for the benefit of the preliminary elucidation given by a specialist. this position is lethal. form a crucial problem in the elaboration . But Racine comes after Freud each time analytical theory is used to reread tragedies. I am proposing something else. The moment-after we described is less a hope for the future than the attribute of a speech affected by its times. a truth to keep. and for. These types of easy “solutions” are constitutive of what interpretation “has to be” in some fields of discourses. The fissures in the identity principle. since it seeks to prohibit other readings. and particularly the one of the amateur. there. weight of prejudices. In Continental philosophy especially. Although he states that Africa has not been visited by Spirit. Exploring what he names “the culture of French absolutism. he rather responds.”44 Such a weird space. In. Annulling this temporality to keep another one (or erasing both of them in eternalizing texts) is nothing but a mere fallacious convenience. then sometimes considers nonarchaeological readings as globally irrelevant. literature. Jean Racine’s theater was written many centuries before the beginning of psychoanalysis and was not meant to be in accordance or discordance with Sigmund Freud’s research.56 new literary history the mark of a former epoch (moral description. it is common to take things apart.

but the significance of the play is not riveted to the fifth act. These two phenomena are supposed to help in formulating an answer to the question of nonidentity. A poem must be “read as a poem” (18). About Shakespeare (but I am going to make a substitution here).” or the contradiction.and post.what is literature’s now? 57 of Freud’s theory. Freud even affirms that “dreams have no means of expressing the relation of a contradiction. Let us add a short digression on the same issue. a contrary or a ‘no’”45—and then adds “denial” on “denial. A dénouement is not automatically the highest point of intensity in a text. In Phèdre.together. . it is voiced in abstracto and ex cathedra. On an historical level. “Postfiguration” is decorative or provocative. Freud’s Traumdeutung refers to composite entities and transferred qualities. this quote could be deceptive.” tragedy comprehends the possibility of the infinite. delivering arguments for a critique of that which Freud avoids. Greenberg’s “then” points out our own difficulty in thinking pre. The “persuasive critique” is transformed into a general verbiage. it does not stop there.” to organize psychic life through topics and to deny contradiction rather than confront it. or at best to metaphysics” (18). Racine may reveal the psychic structure of absolutist power. with conceptual discourses kept at distance. With a “stubborn resistance.” he opposes thinkers who see in a poem “an attempt to overcome philosophy” (18). But Phèdre immediately and equally responds to psychoanalysis. or keeps it separate. Bloom positions literature before concept. it is manifest that the idea of Shakespeare (or Racine) critiquing Freud is a sort of concession. or the verse diction itself? The curtain falls. Greenberg’s analytical reading of Racine makes us take note of the psychoanalytic tendency always to “tame the monster. In order to shun the difficulty.”46 If it is true that a psychoanalyzed Racine “both proposes and then denies. not by prefiguration but by postfiguration as it were: all of Freud that matters most is there in [Racine] already. the “oscillation. Finally. but it has no contact with the literary now as moment-after. Thésée’s coming back. Thanks to Freudianism. the critic Harold Bloom has written: “he will illuminate the doctrine.”47 he will also help us to return to the delicate role of contradiction in Freudianism. In spite of its “end. with a persuasive critique of Freud. First of all. One could have the impression that theory does its best to avoid the very possibility of contradictory co-presence. According to Freud. without any effective consequences in Bloom’s approach. Is Bloom really interested in reading both Freud and Shakespeare (or Racine) together? He firmly denounces the reduction of “the aesthetic to ideology. condensation and displacement condition dream production. is the suicide of the eponymous character more of an achievement than the declaration scene. Therefore. continues nonetheless.”48 Is it exactly what we have just said? I do not think so.

Even if one tried to “abolish the referent” once again. Seized in the temporal complication of its now.or seventeenth-century European literature might be linked with political regime. queens.49 The canon takes the place of literature. literature is an historic substance. Historical discrepancy requires understanding and learning. Historical elucidations. To Frenchspeaking readers Racine’s verse “C’est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée”50 seems a grammatical inversion. In current school editions in France.58 new literary history Bloom tacitly refuses the fact that Freud wrote after Shakespeare—since the “best of” his doctrine has already been said by the Bard. The public attribution of many of her works to a man (Georges de Scudéry) is related to the social position of women in France’s Ancien Régime. We perceive lingual historicity and something that resists it. Notwithstanding its political appropriations.”52 The verse plays on words and creates mute eyes that are still audible for Nero’s ear. “Attachée” has lost a great part of its erotic value. Lingual historicity is no excuse for rationalizing or oversimplifying interpretation. This is quite obvious in many texts from the seventeenth century. the very idiom should remind us of the language’s inscription in time. Mme de La Fayette chose anonymity for similar reasons. and this detail signals very different situations of elaboration and performance. and other aristocrats in sixteenth. are a part of writing. but not in totality. and the claimed (but unproved) “postfiguration” has only one meaning: reaffirming the eternity of Culture. The chapter devoted to Shakespeare in Bloom’s Western Canon has almost nothing to do with reading. Yet historical substance of literature is not only a question of language. verses such as “J’entendrai des regards que vous croirez muets”51 are translated. The artificiality of Racine’s verses is historically and linguistically decipherable. But “entendre” is also “entendre” or “ouïr. Another novelist. princes. they should not consume particularities in the name of ancientness. The jealous emperor expresses the power of hyperesthesia. even about lingual uses. Racine’s usage does not equal a collective use of the idiom in any given time. But temporal distance is not an explanation. even in the experience of our “native” language. To read a multicentennial book incites us to set aside certitudes. one of the greatest French novelists. The fact that both women wrote novels rather than tragedies illustrates the persistence of discourse hierarchies. rarely published her books under her own name. Not all readers know all that. . The numerous characters of kings. The lengths of French classical tragedy and of Elizabethan drama are not the same. Far from that. One claims that entendre means comprendre. even in today’s versified poetry the alexandrin marks a separation from a time when this meter was still held in prestige. literature’s instant-after demands an ongoing interest in past and in present together. Mlle de Scudéry.

The insertion of literary oeuvres in history is so multiple that the few remarks I have just given should be taken for simple memoranda. If we seek to respect past and present.”55 In both quotes. in general). A “new” literary history would focus on the temporal passages that oeuvres open. Are we the only ones to do that? Finally. my friends and I quite often read passages of books. That these two inquiries have some common points is likely. where the “average reader” is considered as ignorant or neutral. If a literary text has a destiny. On the contrary. Furthermore. Clelia is a “roman fleuve.”53 Now. and then discuss them. I see that Mlle de Scudéry’s novel The Grand Cyrus is not “readable” anymore because it has been “elaborate[d] in a salon” and “conceived in function of the mode of consuming mundane genres: reading aloud in an interactive social context. which once again contrasts with The Princess of Cleves’s more sober style. to me. it is precisely to escape its historical destination and audience through reading’s now. Restoring a “context. Mme de La Fayette . then [sic] that which should have preceded the Nuptials of the Illustrious Aronces. Literature exhibits history’s separation.” an “historical background” does not exhaust signification at all. 1547–59). In histories of literature. Let us say it quite categorically. But The Princess of Cleves develops a “true” anecdote. The narration focuses on main characters and is quite brief (some hundred and fifty pages in most of our current editions).” don’t we? A correct acknowledgement of an historical situation should not lead to a confusion between destination and destiny. we need to abandon both phantasms: reader’s free play as well as historical unicausality. The history of literature examines how texts (and related practices) are inscribed in a space seen as heterogeneous (the social-historical). The first sentence largely echoes other beginnings. combining repeated “cliffhangers” with long and frequent pauses (for discussion. and the admirable Clelia. Methodic amnesia in criticism is a deception. My point here is more theoretical: we should be aware of the limits of historical explanation.what is literature’s now? 59 to be sure. than in the Declension of the Reign of Henry the Second. though not necessary. and there is no “virgin” reader. The first words I cited are only a small portion of a very long sentence. Mme de La Fayette’s The Princess of Cleves is mostly considered as the archetypal modern and analytic French novel. we always know more than expected. linked to a rather near past (the reign of Henri II.”54 Scudéry’s Clelia states “Never was there a fairer day. I confess that. “Readability” is very relative. The Grand Cyrus is more readable than Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. in a class or a conference. we find a concern with gallantry. Whereas Mme de La Fayette writes “Grandeur and Gallantry never appeared in greater splendour in France. and it does not only depend on the ways of access to the text. Still.” whose plot is totally composite. we read “aloud in an interactive social context.

Literary texts teach historians something other than forms of “mentality” or socially dominant values. Scudéry’s hyperbole comes both from the exaggerated multiplication of diverse sentimental theories and the “incredible” accumulation of episodes and cliffhangers. So. A last word on our two novelists. Literature reminds us that historical experience is not limited to history (in all the semantic extension of this term). In describing an exceptional epoch where only pure feelings ruled. and Racine has written most of his tragedies. the same year Cardinal Mazarin stopped exerting an influence on the young king. a man of letters named Valincourt worried about the politically incorrect statement of the first paragraph. Both novels are hyperbolic narrations.” whose toponymy corresponds to the different kinds and degrees of love and friendship. Between Scudéry and La Fayette. and total duty. and it makes the novel experience absolute. as expressed from the very first pages of the novel. The first two novels written by the Countess (Princess of Montpensier and Zayde) hesitated between revisiting the historical and continuing in the vein of gallant and more utopian narratives. and it leads to the “pays de Tendre. Valincourt wrote: “he [the author] undoubtedly forgot that he was living under the reign of Louis XIV. There. In Clelia. La Fayette’s narration is hyperbolic. She also reinterprets the history of her own work.60 new literary history historically situates her novel by partially evoking and revoking the beginning of a previous bestselling novel. the castle of Versailles is almost ready to become the home of the Court. Is this a classical creed? One has undoubtedly the right to link The Princess of Cleves’s poetics to the whole political movement of artistic creation under the reign of Louis XIV. Never is voiced again and again in La Fayette. thorough love. Literature invites all instituted knowledges to examine their own procedures. in 1678. La Fayette’s insistence on the golden age of Henri II is already a deviation from the classical praise of the present grandeur of absolutism. The last volume of Clelia is published in 1661. As soon as The Princess of Cleves was published. “history” is the key word of The Princess of Cleves’s . what is poetically at stake is precisely located in their conceptions of history. But when she “purifies” noble feelings. she has no particular “measure. A Roman History serves as subtitle to Clelia.” As much as she is historically classical. the heterogeneity of affects is an issue in itself. Writing transcribes perfect virtue. she shuns classicism’s historical reason. it could be accurate to read Mme de La Fayette according to the political and critical category of classicism. Mme de La Fayette is no more “realistic” than Mlle de Scudéry. the historical relation between The Princess of Cleves and Clelia shows troubling affinities. Yet. The Princess of Cleves is released.”56 The oeuvre’s historical substance is no substrate. La Fayette outdates Madeleine de Scudéry’s and Honoré d’Urfé’s creations as well as one of her own previous works. When. With The Princess of Cleves.

Otherwise. After all. As it should be very clear now. To my view.” Valincourt confesses: “in reading the long description of the Court at the beginning [of La Fayette’s novel]. but semantic concentration in a specific term does not imply that nothing existed before the neologism . for instance. I believed I was going to read the history of France. the interrogative force we have described in our previous readings could paradoxically lead us to question the very validity of the category of literature. We shall not save the idea (or the word?) of literature in effacing the history of which it is also made. In gathering only a few (and respected) books written in French in the last two decades.”58 Ces romans sont bien de l’histoire: These novels are story. by the way) does not prove anything at all. the Romantic era. or even the Roman Empire. this “literature” has some resemblance with other universalistic words and ideas that we are now used to criticizing harshly. Notwithstanding.59 This moving periodization is so evidently puzzling that we would in turn be entitled to dismiss such conjectures. it would be pointless to recourse once again to an ahistorical and conceptual identity or to deny any effect of society on texts.” The fact that no such word as “literature” existed in ancient Europe (or elsewhere in the world.what is literature’s now? 61 “advertisement to the reader. it is a pity that scholars focusing on the institutional history of literature do not agree on chronology. the French Revolution. The ambivalence of words interrogates in act the type of knowledge and disciplinary protocols used in scholarship. lexicographers have observed the constitution of the new word literature and several semantic inflexions. I am thinking here of the “lexical reason. The appearance of a substantive is no contingent fact. Nevertheless.”57 Being called “Roman. together. we discover that “the invention of literature” dates back from the mid-seventeenth century. the Enlightenment. to be sure. Historical concerns could dismiss a large part of our previous reflection with only one word. anachronism. for a long time. But it might be a bit hasty. that the very word “literature” is not as ancient as it seems and that. The Anachronism of Signification A final and crucial issue has still now to be addressed. Finally. and history. and herstory. signification is not imprisoned in words.” Scudéry’s fabulous history refers to itself as both a romance (by a play on words) and a narration whose authenticity is assured by Rome’s prestige. one central argument in this debate has to be previously revoked. The “story” of the Princess of Cleves comes directly from “history. it did not even “refer to what we mean” by it now. Was there anything like literature in Ovid’s time or during the Grand Siècle? It is well known.

Still. Rancière’s study is a perfect example of contemporary historical reconsiderations of the literary. “Lexical realists” apply exactly the same kind of pseudoproofs to literature.” In this regard. The first “grand principle” of belles lettres “is the principle of fiction” (20). Besides. In referring “to the first chapter of Aristotle’s poetics. I also truly believe that Rancière’s thesis is not grounded in history. poetics change during and after the Enlightenment period: language becomes essential to postrevolutionary writings. “therefore” they have no being. This depiction violently contrasts with what will be “the primacy of language” (28) in nineteenth. “we” refers to nobody else but you and me. then—in the .and twentieth-century literature. even the word “literature” implied different and contradictory meanings. the Middle Ages. to the contrary of the ancient Greeks. .” either. which “establishes” that the conscience of self-deception is relatively new. In this text at least. I would like to scrutinize Jacques Rancière’s book La Parole muette.62 new literary history in question. but no direct or univocal deduction can be drawn.” Rancière states that in ancient times. According to Rancière. The Chinese have no verb such as to be . The question on the signification of literature has been continuous since the first attempts to define it. precise analysis of the social-historical is able to raise more valid doubts about “literature. and the Ancien Régime. imitation. representation of actions” (20). Wishful thinking has no direct equivalent in French. as well as comedy or dithyrambic poetry. Though I am not convinced by the rationale of this lexical-magical realism. each time I insistently invite you to follow me.”60 La Parole muette illustrates the strong affinity between the democratic era and the invention of literature. If “literature” was invented once. As far as we can go back. The first sentence says “epos and tragic poetry. the first chapter of the Poetics tells me something else. “the poem cannot be defined as a mode of language. and its value or defect pertain to the conception of this story” (20).” for it is by “essence . . And I am not sure of this “we. I truly believe that Rancière has offered a profound meditation on literature. the occurrence of the word in European languages is a clue at most. We do not “know” what literature is to us. “Perfect” is without irony. Aristotle definitely considers mimesis as the rule of art. formulas such as “we know what we call literature” or “what we mean by literature” are mere illusions. Let us add that the English phrase was apparently coined between the wars. The philosopher suggests that the revolutionary era in France facilitated the shift “from Belles-lettres to literature. “because” Parisians are lucid and rational. only fiction would be implied in aesthetic judgments: “a poem is a story. with the same type of absurd consequences. The author finds four principal features in Belletristic poetics that new literature will thoroughly transform. “The lingual form of the oeuvre” (20) would have no importance to old poetics.

. In Boileau’s first chant. all have a common point: they are representations. . verse regularity. But even there. .what is literature’s now? 63 most part—poetry performed with a flute or a cithara.64 The short history of modern poetry Boileau develops is governed by concern with the French tongue. a language and a melody” (1. and so on—contrary to Rancière’s claims. comedy. . .” the substantive has long been compared by grammarians with the noun iamb. tragedy.” attributed to “Aristotle once again. The concern with language culminates in . “Reason” is a sovereign judge and arbiter.”63 Rancière states that the genres of belles lettres depend on “the nature of what is represented. Yet the epithet “hexametric” points out a supplementary accordance between the object and the means of fiction.” Aristotle is indeed concerned with language. In any case. the capital importance of mimesis does not accompany what Rancière calls “aloof indifference . to the original Greek readers.47a). tends to do. As for “dithyramb. There is a real “primacy of fiction. spoke Greek and Latin in the French language”. toward the lingual form of the oeuvre” (20). Aristotle says a bit later. the terms for epos. Aristotle’s Poetics has been widely reread after the Renaissance and the first chapter of La Parole muette mainly refers to seventeenth. Aristotle also says that tragedy. But the dozens of verses dedicated to the likes and dislikes of the “Reader” are about word choice. Flute and cithara poetry are characterized by the musical instrument these forms required.” he sometimes says “hexametric mimesis” (6.49b) for “epos. rhythm. “enacts representation in a rhythm. and music are somewhat secondary to mimesis. but they are properly essential. Here again.” Rancière affirms. at the same time that he focuses his reflection on mimesis.”61 Let us add that. the dramatic shift between two different kinds of poetics is dubious. No special etymological knowledge is here required.47b). Each sort of poetry. our tongue”65 (that is French). The Stagirite is just elaborating a hierarchy: language. Aristotle also disapproves of the common practice of “nam[ing]” poets according to “the meter” they use (1. The same phrase of “hexametric mimesis” contradicts La Parole muette on the second “principle. meters. This remark shows that in putting mimesis first. For sure. and epos are made62 with language. and comedy immediately referred to speech (epos) or to singing (odè ). on what makes the object of fiction” (21). Pierre de Ronsard is criticized because “his muse . .” but language largely intervenes. Though he wants to undermine theoretically or even occult the “mode of language. registers.and eighteenth-century French texts. modulations. whereas François de Malherbe is the one who “redeemed . Nicolas Boileau’s Art of Poetry (1674) does not celebrate the omnipotence of expression—as “literature. Is this only a Greek problem? After all. Aristotle does not express the old and collective poetics: he simply formulates his own theory. and lingual exactitude.

reason has to give orders to language. In those histories. ruled by two collectively accepted poetics. In the name of love for literature and democracy. Sometimes—when he speaks of “aloof indifference” for instance—Rancière seems to deny to belles lettres any notion of poetry’s lingual nature. poetical métier is shown by the perfect adequation of words. the solidity of the whole system is fragile.and twentieth-century European and North American literatures focus more on words and speech than they had done before. and belles lettres become more and more literary. we have to raise one question: what are they intended for? For what reasons do some scholars attempt to find literature’s birth certificate? The ancient legend put the origin in Greece and praised the glorious European (“universal”) heritage. the civilizing process of capitalism. even in the extremest moments of poetic rage. he speaks of the “primacy of fiction” (28) or of “elocutio’s obedience to invented fiction” (22). the event of effective equality. Others will now prefer to see the coincidence between literature and: the triumph of the individual. conceptual obsessions feign to take the form of effective events. Does this trend reveal a paradigmatic change in poetical regimes? Rancière’s philosophical project is here in command: renewing politics. On a global level. Marcel Proust) is perhaps a little bit too convenient for Rancière’s historical purpose. there is no “change of cosmology. and so on. In this respect. promoting equality and democracy beyond their technical institutions. On the other side. The two other principles Rancière indicates (on the role of “convenance” and the strong ties between speech and action) might be more relevant. and thought. rhythm.64 new literary history the precept addressed to other poets: “Above all. . I also have the impression of a twofold demonstration.” no “term to term inversion”68 between two ages. But this précis of belles lettres clearly shows that “the mode of language” and “the lingual form” are indeed important—even in the so-called old poetics. the loss of oral culture. The “grand principles” are belittled. trends may be acceptable points of view.”66 There is little doubt that in Boileau. In any case.67 Even though the bias of the first two criteria would remain. In other instances. Historical transformations occur. Facing this particular case and all other historicizing approaches. That is: there is no invention of literature during the (post)revolutionary era since all elements of “literary” poetics were already there in Rancière’s belles lettres. I imagine that nineteenth. Rancière deliberately confuses entities. two distinct epochs begin to collide. Macroscopic movements are the condensation of discrete trajectories and oeuvres. Stéphane Mallarmé. the holy triad of emblematic literary writers (Gustave Flaubert. and celebrating a century of political revolutions in France (1789–1871). let language be always sacred to you. In short.

let us see how Maurice Blanchot’s negative poetics make us read Boileau or Aristotle differently. but it is its warrant. proverbs. there was a moment when literature did not mean what it means for us: the moment before. Literature goes through dictionary definitions. We began with the words of literature. ruptures. Rainer Maria Rilke. the signification of literature itself is not determined by its name. We may firmly hold a position and have to know the undoing of our own thought. apart from the value they may have in a whole philosophical system (such as in Rancière). and oppositions. There. As soon as a belles lettres text. sayings. Literature each time says all literature again. in the odd moment-after that fractures linearity and cuts circularity. or an African tale allow literary readings. Modern thought may help readers and writers to underline textual significations that were invisible so far. Luis de Góngora Yargote. and with them. and Maurice Scève. or Paul Celan.” What could pass for a round-trip between general and particular is in fact the experience of singularity. Perhaps this position is purely anachronistic. One experiences literature in a weird now. an Athenian tragedy. and after it. The first person (singular or plural) reminds us that hypotheses uttered in an idiom are only almost autonomous: they still depend on me. Whatever the histories of occultation and exhibition may be. Literary enunciation opens up a complex scene where reading has to work on the signification writing evoked. we shall end. The fallacy is this will for periodization that reifies tendencies and changes them into systems or regimes. pierces its own attributive concept. conventions. Such an invention is apt to escape historical “data” and global trends. it witnesses the disequilibrium of any contradictory thought. we are able to think. you. so. “Literature once and for all” does not exist. literary oeuvres always happen in language. The insistence on metaliterary and language impossibilities seems typical for Hugo von Hofmannsthal. they could “illuminate” new readings of Petrarch. us. In return. . Everything occurs afterwards—after others’ discourses. Furthermore. It has to be invented—but each time anew.what is literature’s now? 65 There is paradoxically some sense in these discourses. it is never “the same. leaving communicational transparency. and undoes made-to-measure histories of the literary. literary signification explodes lexical fixity. Literature did not invent the process of signification occurring in tongues. Perhaps it is also simply as anachronistic as literature’s now. They remind us that literature should not be taken for granted. and disciplines. In the enunciation. But yes. Now. literature has been formed and reformed. I prefer this after-reading to ideas of shift. Instead of banning ancient authors (or contemporary ones) from literature under the pretext of a unified historical process.

If literature’s qualification is far broader than what I have said. Not only speech.” But in supplement. Does it mean that we’ll . Oeuvres also speak of the significant defection that allows them. So. nor cover literature’s negativity. I could put an end to this article. literature questions all types of texts or words—and especially the disciplines that enter into the range of the so-called humanities. For our joy. There emerges a subsequent problem: is there a scholarly speech that would neither omit the infinite. it remains that researchers in the humanities should not ignore what an oeuvre says of their own ways of saying. I mostly meant to underline the singularity of a co-presence. Yet the fact that désoeuvrement ends in making an oeuvre leads us to consider literature’s affirmation beside any de(con)struction. in order to signify in spite of all. In destroying and deploying meaning and signification. I hope the study of literature brings some joy to students. Not only language. Not only discourses. their readings. To put it simply. one will recognize literature’s effect on the logic of scholarly discourses only if one reads the disciplines. though the encomiastic vein of literature often feigns plenitude. a codicil about literature in higher education. But as it shows failures or contradictions. If the purpose of literature is not to deliver a critical kit designed for scholars. I bet that there is literature and have tried to portray it. But I am writing in New Literary History after having received an invitation addressed to a scholar. but differentiated usages. and their teachings.66 new literary history The field of literature is conditioned by the affirmation of the impossible. and rather to keep the exhibition of the defect. Far from being riveted to the ineffable. interpreting literature could be crucial to the whole architecture of knowledge in the university. I am sure that literature is still read and enjoyed by “nonprofessional readers. literature is not nothing. literary text is neither opposed nor inimical to concept and instituted knowledge in general. but languages. It is not. Literature’s now points out the unlimited that discourses of knowledge seek to contain. The contemporary negative poetics incite us not to restore reading as fully positive. Here. then send. but registers. Despite difficulties and contradictions. and we—that is all the I’s that we are—should try to invent it. It creates after the finite. I would like to add. Such an affirmative force has often been taken for a naïve or direct positivity. What philosophical critique has brought to the humanities in the past decades can be altered and continued by a new literary scholarship. We should take literature at its peak. and in spite of apocalyptic prophecies. literary mise en oeuvre gives renewed ways of understanding the defects of disciplinary thought. and as it speaks of the disciplines. nor suspend all judgment? Perhaps. their writings. from my literary and adoptive town of Ithaca. In the temporal change that produces it. It just occurs after them—after their point of rupture.

Cornell University Notes 1 Tzvetan Todorov. 1978). 1923). If we look for these violent changes. But the aim is to follow literature’s traces. including this one of course. We are all students. “Literature Comes Afterwards” focuses on black francophone writers linked to the negritude movement. or stigmatizes. It is obvious that it is not all literature.what is literature’s now? 67 have to consider literature as theory. we shall have to promote—more and more—the teaching of literature. Every theory articulated with words is apt to be affected by literature in its most decisive moments. The last ensemble is devoted to theory and literary criticism (Aristotle. Clare as Primitive Mentality (New York: Macmillan. and historical dispositions are intended to tacitly question the categories of canon and corpus. a commitment to rebellion in thought—and a vital place for productive doubt in the humanities. But if our question is the discourse that scholars are able to construct about and after literature. Jacques Rancière). and comes through the theoretical. In this respect. as Stathis Gourgouris has recently stated in his remarkable essay Does Literature Think?69 To me. literary studies are no discipline (if they ever had been). literary critics should also renounce the too-current posture of the splendid aesthete. and in social and human sciences if we keep something of the dangerous thought that literary oeuvres make us know. geographical origins. If one had not used and abused this prefix. if they want to approach the upheavals of literature.” xix. They have to learn what the disciplines say. Variations in languages. a theory of literature is also temporary and frail. Translated by Lilian A. “Entretien avec Aimé Césaire par Jacqueline Leiner.” I mainly refer to the second part of seventeenth-century France. 1 (1973): 5–16. See for instance La Mentalité primitive (Paris: Alcan. They are an indiscipline. rather than staying with certitudes and overspecialized concerns. The second part explores many authors of the so-called Western tradition (from antiquity to the present) in a comparative way. and forever. literature rather enacts theory’s cracks. I believe that the elaboration of such an indiscipline could be enough. Such a renewal could by no means be a grave return. Major alterations will occur in philosophy. Throughout “History and Temporal Complication. we would say that literature is above all posttheoretical.” New Literary History 5. in history. On the other hand. “Entretien avec Aimé Césaire. no. 3 Aimé Césaire. xix.” Tropiques (Paris: Jean-Michel Place. represses. and to find some new significations for the lacks that scholarship traditionally denies. 2 To each section of this article corresponds a different body of texts. In the sense I just evoked here. and of language. . 5 Lucien Lévy-Bruhl popularized the concept of prelogic mind and primitive thought during the first part of his career. “The Notion of Literature. my translation from the French. or an absolute rupture. 1922). 4 Césaire. At least for now—of course. Nicolas Boileau.

68 new literary history 6 Césaire. theater. 1958). Oeuvres complètes. 14 Diop. Mythologicum. Metamorphoses.” 7 Here.” “this is just a footnote. vol. My translation from the Latin. 1997). 1968).” xxiii: “l’Occidental privilégie le concept par rapport à l’image et se méfie de cette dernière. 12 Diop. 12r. 33 Antonin Artaud. 40. xxiii (Contes. Tales. Dorothy S. privilégie le raisonnement logique par rapport au raisonnement analogique. 30 Ovid. 23. originally published as Les Contes d’Amadou-Koumba (Paris: Présence africaine. and so forth) are apt to be partially spoken by literature. 12r. 19 See Mieke Bal.871 (hereafter cited in text). Travelling Concepts. 68. 10 Birago Diop.” “you know the story. Mythologicum.” “knowing its day over. I have recourse to the English translation appearing in the bilingual edition of Césaire. 22 The first occurrence of the phrase “word-concept” is Bal. 25. Tales. 333. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Paris: Présence africaine. MA: Harvard University Press. Nouveaux Contes. 24 (Paris: Gallimard. comics.” “when you know. 1961). Blanchot (Paris: Hermann. 3. On the other hand. 287.” 26 Ashbery. 49. such oeuvres are often tied to some historical phases of literature (such as rap and rock and roll. 45 (Contes. 25 Ashbery. 12). 16 About weaving. 1988). Travelling Concepts. 155). 12). Tales. 23. 88–89.” “its none-too-complex ordinances. 83. The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry (New York: Ecco. see Laurent Dubreuil. 20 Bal. 1966). 2 (Cambridge. trans. 287. 287–89: “more than any of you were intended to know. Mythologicum. 28 Dorat. 45 (Contes. 2002). 23 Bal.30. 27 Jean Dorat. 31 See Horace. Tales. Tales of Amadou Koumba. see Diop. . 134 (my translation from the French). only insertion hors-texte as the invisible notion of how that day grew. 32 The first part of this chant is a philosophical elucidation. The Double Dream. 73. De l’attrait à la possession: Maupassant. “Allegory” appears in the original text.” “it asks no place in it. 8 I play on the French and Creole words. The French version is more expressive: “Qui suspend son bien déteste celui qui regarde en haut” (Contes. which nowadays perpetuate verses and rhymes outside the realm of contemporary poetry). 2000). Odes. 13 Diop.” “though you cannot imagine this. 18 Ouakam is the birthplace of Diop. Cahier. The Double Dream. 9 “RIDICULOUS AND UGLY” in Césaire. 17 The works of arts that are nonliterary but largely include language (cinema. Travelling Concepts.” “now that newness. “natif-natal” is expressively redundant. 12r (original pagination of the edited manuscript). Tales. In Creole. xxiii (Contes. or 287 (“turning a word into a concept”). Artaud. 21 Bal. Travelling Concepts. 24 Extract from The Double Dream of Spring in John Ashbery. 29 Dorat. songs. vol. On this question.“Entretien avec Aimé Césaire. ou Interprétation allégorique de l’Odyssée X-XII et de L’Hymne à Aphrodite (Geneva: Droz. 11 Diop. 1939) 15. 49). 15 Diop. 2003). Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 49). My translation from the Latin.” “they know no other kind but themselves. Les Nouveaux contes d’Amadou Koumba (Paris: Présence Africaine. 33. Blair (London: Oxford University Press.” “No fishing. It refers to the place of birth in combining two synonymic substantives having the same etymology (native and natal).

268. i–ii. 1999). The Interpretation of Dreams. Naissance de l’écrivain: Sociologie de la littérature à l’âge classique (Paris: Minuit. 54 Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne. 5. French version: “Il ne fut iamais vn plus beau jour que celuy qui deuoit preceder les Nopces de l’illustre Aronce. in Oeuvres complètes. In English. 1. 1961). 1953). In English “The glances you think dumb I’ll overhear” in The Complete Plays. 1678). verse 682. 268 (hereafter cited in text). Britannicus. 1. 2–3. The Princess of Cleves: The Most Famed Romance (London: Bentley & Magnes.” Clelie. in Oeuvres complètes. vol. 51 Jean Racine. trans.” in Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press. 326. 1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. 1100. I substitute Racine for Shakespeare. see Laurent Dubreuil. 35 See Jed Deppman. and Michael Groden. My translation from the French. verse 306. “It’s Venus tense extended on her prey!” in The Complete Plays. Lettres à Madame la Marquise *** sur le sujet de la Princesse de Clèves (Paris: Mabre-Cramoisy. 1975). vol. & de l’admirable Clelie.artamene. vol. an Excellent New Romance (London: Herringham. 1004. 434. “The Universal Aspect of Hermeneutics.” in La Fayette. vol. 280. Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism (Ithaca. 36 Derek Attridge. 431–48. in Gesammelte Werke: chronologisch geordnet (Frankfurt: Fischer. Lettres. also see 342. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace. 1. 49 Only four verses are quoted in this chapter. Les Pouvoirs de la littérature: Histoire d’un paradoxe . 57 See “Le Libraire au Lecteur. 331. “Über den Begriff der Geschichte. This advertisement does not appear in the first English edition of The Princess. 59 See Alain Viala. 1. 327. no. 55 Madeleine de Scudéry. 744. German edition Die Traumdeutung. 4. 50 Jean Racine. “Denial” adapts the original “widersprechen. 1678). 323: “das Verhalten des Traumes gegen die kategorie von Gegensatz und Widerspruch. 2 (New York: Random House.org.” 701. French version: “La magnificence & la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat. 701 (my translation from the German). 1994). Christian Jouhaud. 48 Harold Bloom.” in Gesammelte Schriften. Countess of La Fayette. das ‘Nein’ scheint für den Traum nicht zu existieren. La Princesse de Clèves. que dans les dernieres années du regne de Henry second. In this quotation. 43 See the last books written by Florence Dupont.” New Literary History 37. Singularity of Literature. Dieser wird schlechtweg vernachlässigt. vol. 40 Walter Benjamin. 1. 1689). Racine. 39 From theories of performance to Alain Badiou. 42 We respected chronology in taking together negritude writers in the first part of this article. 2004). 58 Valincourt.” 46 Freud. 56 Jean Baptiste Henry du Trousset de Valincourt. for instance. 105. 2001). 45 Sigmund Freud. verses 730. 47 Greenberg. 1 (2006): 107–17. 1670). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press.” Gesammelte Werke. 38 Attridge. 1974). 1328. Clelia. vol. Daniel Ferrer. The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge. 1985). 53 “Lire le Grand Cyrus. vol. Samuel Solomon. 25 (hereafter cited in text). 44 Mitchell Greenberg. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1 (Paris: Barbin. “The Presences of Deconstruction. Phèdre et Hippolyte. 6. Baroque Bodies. 1 (Paris: Gallimard. Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-textes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.” La Princesse de Clèves. Britannicus. 1967). 37 On this point. vol. 104 (hereafter cited in text).what is literature’s now? 69 34 Hans Georg Gadamer. 2004). 41 Benjamin. NY: Cornell University Press.” http://www. also see 337. Histoire romaine (Paris: Courbe. 1. 52 See. 1679). “Über den Begriff der Geschichte.

68 Rancière. 61 Aristotle. Selected Criticism. 1999). 28. 65 Boileau. 2003). Selected Criticism. La Parole muette: Essai sur les contradictions de la littérature (Paris: Hachette. Selected Criticism. IN: Bobbs-Merrill. But literature is both more and less than that. 11 (hereafter cited in text). Parole muette. 62 Poiesis (poetry) is linked to the verb poiein (to make). 69 See Stathis Gourgouris. Its singularity rather lies in the disarticulation of rationality and irrationality. 160). L’Invention de la littérature: de l’ivresse grecque au livre latin (Paris: La Découverte. 25. 67 See Rancière. 9–10. Parole muette. Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Stanford. Le Livre avalé: De la littérature entre mémoire et culture (Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal. Dilworth (Indianapolis. 15 (Oeuvres. Poetics. 1966). Parole muette. . My translation from the French. of positive and negative knowing. 1. 21. 160). 2000). Eric Méchoulan. I have a deep sympathy with the scholars who seek to represent literature as a mode of knowledge.70 new literary history (Paris: Gallimard. trans. My translation from the Greek. CA: Stanford University Press. 66 Boileau. 159–62. 2004). 22–27 for the principle of convenance and considerations on speech-acts. and finally Florence Dupont. The latter is available in English translation: Dupont. 63 Rancière. 11–17.47a (hereafter cited in text). Janet Lloyd (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. The Invention of Literature: from Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book. The first canto is translated in English by Ernest Dilworth in Boileau. Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard. Jacques Rancière. 15 (Oeuvres. 1994). 1965). 60 Rancière. Parole muette. trans. 64 Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. 1998).

and other French writers. His publications include Formalism and Marxism (1979). Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures (with Michael Emmison and John Frow. Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution. Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (with Janet Woollacott. Outside Literature (1990). a Director of the Economic and Social Science Research Centre on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC). Author of Twilight of the Literary: Figures of Thought in the Age of Print (2001). He is an editorial board member of the journals Labyrinthe and Diacritics. 38: 239–240 . Laurent Dubreuil is Assistant Professor in French and Francophone Literatures and the Director of the French Studies Program at Cornell University. He has taught French literature. His research explores the relations between literary thought and conceptual knowledge (from philosophy to social thought). 1987). and written a number of books and articles on aesthetic theory as well as on Flaubert. Racine. “What Is Literature’s Now?” is a part of a new book project entitled The Indiscipline of Literary Studies. Jonathan Culler is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He is currently finishing up a manuscript on Atta et tous les autres: foi et savoir dans la pensée du sacrifice humain. most recently. Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Culture: A Reformer’s Science (1998). 1999).CONTRIBUTORS Charles Altieri teaches modern poetry and some history of ideas at the University of California—Berkeley. Colonialism (2004) and New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (edited with Larry Grossberg and Meaghan Morris. Politics (1995). Beginning with The Origin of Language (1981). 2005). and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Gans New Literary History. His most recent book is The Literary in Theory (2006). Terry Cochran is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Montreal. Eric Gans attended Columbia College and the Johns Hopkins University. his most recent book is Profession: comparatiste (2007). He is now working on a book on Wallace Stevens and trying to recuperate the concept of appreciation. 2007. His most recent books are The Particulars of Rapture (2003) and The Art of Modern American Poetry (2006). Theory. and film at UCLA since 1969. where he received his doctorate in Romance Languages in 1966. Museums. The Birth of the Museum: History. Musset. critical theory. Tony Bennett is Professor of Sociology at the Open University. and.

Laurent. culminating with Proust. This desultory structure is homologous to that of the blog. its master genre is the novel. Hayles. I consider the different moments of the literary experience and how diffracted “nows” lead us to nonrational and exceeding thought. N.1. In reading several discrete corpus (from the Francophone negritude movement to Aristotle and Ranciere. psychoanalysis or criticism) in such a way that the very forms of our knowledge should be altered. Abstract: Yes. I show how the literary responds to the disciplines (such as anthropology. the auto-narrative of today’s archival society. Volume 38. 2007 . But in the developing consumer society of the nineteenth century. r Criticism. we still need traditional novels and stories that give meaning to the life of desire. history. 1942The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience: An Alternative to Materialist Theory [Access article in HTML] [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings: r Literature. q q http://muse. we need to reinspect the very notions of time and history through the prism of literature. Dubreuil. it is still time to read literature and to write about it. If poetical oeuvres always come afterother discourses (and not beforethem. Altieri. What Is Literature’s Now? [Access article in HTML] [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings: r Literature.Table of Contents The concept of Literature is associated with the emergence of national consciousness around 1800. Ultimately I reject materialist ontologizing because it is has now no significant other—our basic task is to characterize fully how sensuousness is achieved and put to work for the imagination. the novelist’s fiction of authentic life becomes asymptotic to his own. Katherine. whose novel is a series of intermittentnarratives structured only by the ultimate realization of the narrator’s literary vocation.html (2 of 6)6/16/2007 2:12:55 PM .jhu. In this essay. Abstract: I argue that three versions of materialist theorizing ironically fail to give adequate accounts of two basic features of literary experience—its ways of being sensuous and its manifestation of particular features of labor that can produce compelling singularity for the reader.edu/journals/new_literary_history/toc/nlh38. as it is usually said). Charles. But although the ultimate narrative artwork is a series of semi-connected tales. from John Ashberry to Ovid or Freud).New Literary History.

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