Random Reflections on Literary History an Textual Criticism | Charles Baudelaire | Poetry

Random Reflections on Literary History and Textual Criticism Author(s): J. D. Hubert Source: New Literary History, Vol. 2, No.

1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 163-171 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/468594 . Accessed: 01/03/2011 17:14
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Random Reflections on Literary

History and Textual Criticism

J.D. Hubert
ALTHOUGH New Criticism, by that time, had made its mark and, in fact, had become dominant in many if not most English departments and literary journals, French studies, in the early 195o's, remained with very few exceptions, faithful to the spirit and even the letter of Lanson's teachings. This holds true not only for the various "Facultis des Sciences Humaines," Parisian or provincial, but also for the vast majority of French departments in Great Britain and the United States. It would appear that professors of French had failed to communicate with their more enterprising colleagues in English! In France itself, few if any scholars had even heard of New Criticism.' The first article on the subject was to appear several years later in the avant-garde journal Critique; and characteristically it took a comparatist from Harvard, Professor Paul de Man, to inform unsuspecting French intellectuals of this "new" approach. Moreover, very few Parisian scholars at that time had read anything whatever by Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, at the height of their fame in the rest of the Western world. Recently, however, Auerbach's Mimesis and a selection of articles on French literature by Spitzer have appeared in Gallimard's prestigious "Bibliotheque des Idees." In the last few years, in fact, French criticism has not only caught up with North America, Australia, and the rest of Europe, but may even have forged ahead in the application of linguistics to literary theory. It would be unfair to attribute the dominance of Lanson-a pioneer in his own day--during more than half a century to chauvinism or even to that form of benevolent cultural imperialism so typical of the Third and Fourth Republics, for most literary scholars in the French universities neglected their own avant-garde, ignoring such original theorists as
i Mallarm6, by reason of his hermeticism, became the object of close textual analysis by such critics as Robert Greer Cohn, L'Oeuvre de Mallarmed: un coup de dies (Paris, I951), and Gardner Davies, Les "tombeaux" de Mallarme (Paris, I950), Vers une explication rationelle du coup de dis (Paris, 1953), and Mallarmd et le drame solitaire (Paris, I959).



Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Moreover, no professor, however prestigious, ever had the boldness or the inclination to teach living, let alone avant-garde writers in any facult6, until the University of Strasbourg, not many years ago, adopted the policy of including contemporary authors in its curriculum. The only reasonable explanation I can provide for this attitude, is that professors of French at the Sorbonne and their colleagues in other institutions regarded themselves first and foremost as scientists. Lanson's methods, characterized by their reliability, had achieved many noteworthy results in the history of ideas. In the hands of imaginative and subtle scholars of the calibre of Professor Jean Pommier, it had proved to be a formidable tool. Other methods, concerned merely with interpretation, provided results that seemed, by comparison, ephemeral, and answered questions that serious scholars just did not ask. In this connection, I feel compelled to report a statement made, circa 1957, by one of the pundits of the Sorbonne: "If in America, as in some of our more distant provinces, you resort to interpretation, it is because you do not have at your disposal the wealth of documentation we enjoy here in Paris." It may seem surprising that a system that had perfected "explication de textes," taught for generations in every lyc6e and facult6 of the land, should have taken so dim a view of textual interpretation. Actually, French scholars, unlike so many of their colleagues in other countries, had little if any use for "explication" in their serious publications. Even today, many structuralists prefer to rise above-or perhaps delve below-the text, which they treat as a pretext for whatever theories, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic, and the more abstruse the better, they happen to fancy. For instance, Roland Barthes, even in the structuralist chapters of his Racine, relegates all quotations from the tragedies to unobtrusive footnotes. It so happens that "explication de textes" differs in one essential respect from the close textual analysis characteristic of New Criticism: whereas the former functions as a pedagogical device, leading to and from the text, the latter is entirely centripetal, as though the critic assumed that the text had a penetrable center where all the disparate elements would somehow fit together. Although historical criticism, as practiced by Gustave Lanson and his followers, has gone out of fashion and has come under attack in its stronghold, the Sorbonne, I do not wish to imply that it has been superseded by more recent methods. Indeed, present-day literary historians in France realize the limitations of Lanson's methodology; and their sophisticated approach to literary history has acquired a flexibility and a discrimination unknown to most of their predecessors. Nonetheless, their basic assumptions have inevitably remained the same today as in




1951, when I defended my thesis on Baudelaire's use of ambiguity,2 or, for that matter, when the great Lanson himself developed his method and formulated his theory at the turn of the century. While my introductory chapter contained a not too tactful critique of biographical interpretation and the search for literary sources, I tried to come to terms with the historical approach by merely pointing out some of its fundamental conventions, as so many theorists, notably Rene Wellek, had done before me, but none of them in French.3 The historian, or so it seemed to me, by regarding a poem as a document-as a source of information concerning the poet's ideas-completely loses sight of it as a work of art. In thus reducing a poem to its "content"-to a prose paraphrase-he must provide a single and, in his opinion, definitive interpretation whereby the poem coincides with the ideas the author seems to take seriously. From this viewpoint, the Fleurs du Mal would appear, more or less, as variations on, and variegations of, ideas already formulated by such Romantics as Balzac and Sainte-Beuve, or by such mystics as Swedenborg. Having admitted the usefulness and even the necessity of these conventions, I dwelled at length on the presuppositions of New Criticism in general and of my own approach in particular. At that time, historians unfortunately considered their conventions not only useful and fruitful, but regarded them as axiomatic truths, and their interpretations as objective, coherent, and practically infallible. Reading a poem in its own terms struck them as a subjective, impressionistic, and frivolous occupation, suitable perhaps for contemporary, unconsecrated literature. Strangely enough, in looking back on L'Esthe'tique des Fleurs du Mal, tellect, I have to admit that my own approach has always been more historical or, worse still, more eclectic, than I had presumed when I wrote them, in spite of all the neocritical niceties they contained: the search for puns and paradoxes, the insistence on the inner coherence as well as the ontological independence of plays and poems. In applying Empson's idea of ambiguity to the poetry of Baudelaire, I replaced his seven types with categories borrowed from the theoretical and critical writings of the poet-with ideas! And in a subsequent article, read at the 1954 meeting of the English Institute, I attempted to relate Baudelaire's poetic practice with that of the French Romantic school. It appeared to me that while Lamartine, Vigny, and Hugo strove so hard for self-expression that they let their own physical presence get in the way of their
L'Esthe'tique des Fleurs du Mal (Geneva, 1953). 3 "Literary History" in Literary Scholarship, Its Aims and Methods Hill, N. C., 1941 ), pp. 96 ff.

on L'Essaid'dexegise racinienneand on Moliere and the Comedy of In-




poetry, Baudelaire discovered a way of using his own identity instrumentally and of subordinating not only the outside world, but inner experience to poetic creation. True or false, this statement clearly belongs in the realm of literary history. In interpreting the tragedies of Racine, I took the author's Jansenist background into account as well as the idea of self-love, as expressed in Pascal's Pense'esand in the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld. The paradoxical situation of the actor, excommunicated by the Church, but lionized by king and court, played a not unimportant part in my commentaries on Moliere's comedies. Now, from a purely neocritical or structural standpoint, the historical elements involved may appear unnecessary, out of place or even detrimental. In any case, an uncompromising critic, new or old, might carp at my approach because of its lack of methodoligal "purity." But how can any critic or scholar get around the fact that the meanings of words in general and of key expressions in particular are closely related to the social and philosophical trends as well as the religious beliefs and literary attitudes of a given period? If a critic fails to take into consideration certain facts, for instance the conventions of a literary genre, or if he chooses to ignore intellectual trends or fashions-more often than not the cliches popular at a given moment-he proceeds in constant peril of misreading the text and of missing therefore the ironies or innuendos that would hardly have escaped sophisticated and perceptive contemporaries of the author. Usually, familiarity with the literary background should suffice for all except historians. A writer, or, for that matter, any artist, rarely starts with nature or ideologies in the raw or even with his own intimate experiences, but rather with the well-wrought fabrications of other artists, usually his older contemporaries. Baudelaire, for instance, started with a taste for Sainte-Beuve and Gautier in the same manner that Leonardo found his inspiration in the paintings of his master Verrocchio, or Beethoven in the compositions of Haydn and Mozart. They imitated art before looking at the world around and within them. Unfortunately, a familiarity however extensive with these admired predecessors will obviously never enable the critic to understand even the early works of a Baudelaire, a Leonardo, or a Beethoven, although ignorance in such matters might prove embarrassing. It would thus appear that historical information, even of a literary nature, can play no more than a subordinate part in criticism and cannot, of itself, provide or even suggest a coherent interpretation of a work of art. As historical or even biographical information is essentially a sort of digest or reduction, it may at best tell us about the state of mind of a writer before he wrote his masterpiece, but very little about the creative process itself and still less about the work of art. Between this state




of mind and creative activity, between the latter and the finished work, lie considerable gaps that many a critic or scholar unconsciously tries to conceal under a thick cover of words. This might explain why many critics, new no less than old, believe-as Rene Wellek said of I. A. Richards's chief theory-that "poetry puts into order the chaos of our impulses," 4 or, as some romantics and a few mystics felt, that the poem faintly but sincerely expresses some glorious or abominable vision or visitation. For my part, I have always assumed that the poet functions as an explorer or discoverer, and that the poem, by transcending whatever feeling, experience, or vision may or may not have preceded it, is never commensurate with the past. In spite or perhaps by virtue of these gaps, critics, at their own risk, have felt free to link the poem with whatever set of experiences, occurrences, ideas, or linguistic recurrences they or their masters happen to take seriously. In short, these areas of mystery and indetermination permit, if I may borrow a term from Roland Barthes, various kinds of "mitalangage." The limited or subservient usefulness of background information has also had some rather paradoxical results insofar as some new critics mistakenly assume that the history of ideas plays no part whatever in their interpretations. Actually, the mere fact of consulting old dictionaries transforms them ever so slightly into literary archeologists, at least to the extent that their interpretation involves a reconstruction. Many a textual critic, in explicating a text, tends to take for granted whatever background knowledge he may have acquired, though usually for other purposes; and he therefore acts as though his exegesis flowed naturally and totally from the text itself. He may not even realize that his "preparation" for reading the text would be the envy of an historical scholar. I must admit, however, that if this purely hypothetical new critic decided to put into writing the matrix of each of his comments, he might never find a publisher. The confirmed historian conceals, or rather dismisses from his mind, quite different matters. It may even happen that he so completely represses his personal appreciation, and blinds himself so successfully to subtleties considered irrelevant, that his reading of the text becomes perversely pedestrian. For the historian as well as for the new critic, it all boils down to a matter of focus. And they would be joined, in this respect, by phenomenologists, concerned with the creative consciousness and even by the structuralists, for we all dismiss salient aspects of a work of art and even of our own reading in order to apply as efficiently as possible our techniques. One might infer that no two critics or scholars have ever read the
4 Ibid., p. o05.



same text. Criticism, by its very nature, attempts to transform as rapidly as possible whatever is read into a convenient construct-a construct that, in some respects, involves reduction, but that in others, by dint of paraphrase and interpolation, entails creation. And this convenience, however valid it may seem within a scientific or systematic framework, often negates not so much literary values, however they may be defined, but qualitative reading. Some structuralists, for instance, transform the text into a construct where linguistic relations take the place of human perceptivity. The very nature of their approach prevents them from taking into account the effects on, or the awareness of, a reader.5 For that matter, all scientifically inclined scholars and critics, with the exception of the phenomenologists, would wish to abolish the subjective factors involved, i.e. the perceptive reader whose very presence might obscure the various target structures, sociological, psychological, linguistic . ... In what sense, then, may we claim that these structures constitute literary interpretations? Whatever the answer, it would appear that appreciation and scientific constructs can never coincide. Scholars tend to develop strange reading habits. My own inclination, upon first reading a literary work, is to look for recurrent patterns, metaphorical structures, and hidden meanings. If the aim of literary studies consists in establishing objective relationships, then the various approaches could all claim to have scientific validity, even though they might not share many of the proposed relationships. The history of ideas and the search for ambiguities, for instance, would probably have nothing whatever in common. The historian attempts to establish some type of intellectual coherence where ideas derived from a given text will find their rightful place, whereas the textual critic, if need be, will derive from various sources whatever ideas might serve to establish some sort of coherence within the work of art. They have opposite views not only of ends and means but of the very nature of information. Ideally, the scholar should be both textual critic and historian. He could then establish some sort of dialectic between the two apparently contradictory types of coherence and the two opposite kinds of information. A recent article by Professor Jean Dubu brings out only too clearly the advantage of combining the two types of competence.6 Professor Dubu has not attempted to reinterpret Racine's Plaideurs. He has
5 See Michael Riffaterre's discussion of Levi-Strauss and Roman Jacobson, "Describing Poetic Structures: Two Approaches to Baudelaire's Les Chats," Yale French Studies, special issue on structuralism, XXXVI-XXXVII (1966). 6 Jean Dubu, "Racine, les plaideurs et les juges," Annali dell'Instituto Universitario Orientale, Napoli, XI, I (Gennaio, 1969), 5-32.




shown, rather, that a knowledge of seventeenth-century legal procedure, an acquaintance with contemporary attitudes toward the administration of justice, an awareness of the author's first-hand experience with law enforcement during his stay at Uz6s, would be indispensable to any critic eager to grasp the elusive relationships between play and audience, all the more so because Les Plaideurs is, to begin with, a free adaptation of Aristophanes' Wasps, a comedy that derived much of its sting from specific comments on contemporary events. In this case at least, the critic would be hard put to establish a sufficiently safe and solid springboard before making his interpretive leap. Luckily, I did not include Racine's only comedy in my exegesis! No doubt the wealth of background material so skilfully and patiently unearthed by Jean Dubu does not explain the play, but without it, essential relationships, perceptible within the text to perhaps a handful of Racine's contemporaries, would be lost forever. With the exception of the ideal scholar capable of combining both approaches, the historian will continue to establish facts and intellectual coherences. The textual critic will, according to his requirements, assimilate whatever facts enable him to understand a given work of art. His behavior consists at times in rejecting the historical approach while taking full advantage of its contributions. And his attitude resembles in some respects Ronsard's method of "innutrition"-the intensive, lengthy, and disciplined preparation that leads to poetic creation. The great Leo Spitzer could derive splendid interpretations of an entire work through close analysis of a brief passage chosen at random only because he could bring to bear in his explication a thorough and almost total knowledge of literature and linguistics. No wonder a short passage could yield such a wealth of meaning, including of course the metaphorical structure of the entire work. Unlike Spitzer, Georges Poulet focuses his attention on a large sampling of brief passages. He stresses consciousness-the consciousness of the reader who lends himself, as it were, to the creative work and the consciousness of the artist, insofar as it transpires through his writings. Although he may not have used the term, Professor Poulet appears to insist on the passivity of the reader, who surrenders to the book, and on the passivity of the book itself, which asks for nothing better than to yield to the reader. But behind the passive externals of the complex act of reading, lurks the ceaseless activity of the reader-the enormous preparation of the critic, who, among other things, must not let himself be misled by the writer's deceptiveness and duplicity-by the seductions of the apparently passive book. It would seem that the communion of, or collaboration between, two passive sets of consciousness might cover a multiplicity of virtues and that the phenomenologist, no



more and no less than the new critic, can escape history. Both, however, make it serve quite different purposes. Should we conclude that all methods fail insofar as they cannot possibly take into account our total reading experience, but must establish a restricted and perhaps partly arbitrary set of relationships at the expense of others? In other words, must the critic pay the penalty for having crossed the ill-defined borderline that separates reading from objective relatedness? It would appear that the limitations of literary studies pertain to the very nature of the questions asked, of the problems examined. But it so happens, in literary studies, that almost any reasonable question or sensible problem can receive a convincing, if not necessarily true, answer or solution. Thus the scholar, whatever his approach, translates literature into concepts, susceptible of being related in any number of ways and of yielding, at a price, plausible answers to all sorts of contradictory questions. One literary problem, and by all odds the trickiest, requires for its solution the conjunction of all possible approaches: attribution. I have recently become involved in tentatively attributing four anonymous poems, published in 1841, to no less a writer than Baudelaire. My own experience as a reader sufficed to convince me that these four texts were early works of the great poet. But in order to justify this attribution, even in my own eyes, I resorted to considerable textual analysis so as to establish metaphorical structures and ambiguities comparable to those in the Fleurs du Mal, undertook a study of the ideas expressed and of literary sources in accordance with the teachings of Lanson so as to relate the unsigned poems to known works of Baudelaire, and compared the author's conception of time and space with that of Baudelaire, as established by Georges Poulet. Unfortunately, statistical analysis proved to be of little help, for there remain far too few early and unrevised poems of Baudelaire to serve as a basis for comparison. Paradoxically, this rather ponderous critical apparatus will probably convince only those scholars (if there be any) who feel, upon reading the poems, that indeed only Baudelaire could have written them. My arguments will, on the contrary, appear insufficient on all counts to readers who feel that Baudelaire could not have written the four texts. But what is the use of a lengthy commentary that can persuade only those readers who have convinced themselves? Perhaps a few will obligingly suspend their disbelief, while others by force of habit will welcome any sort of intellectual justification. In any case, the answer might be that the critical arguments involved, whether historical, phenomenological, metaphorical, or statistical serve to translate into reasonably clear, systematic, and coherent thought the obscure, if not unconscious,




activities involved in reading and appreciating the texts. These arguments provide in addition somewhat tendentious interpretations of the poems and may lead the (persuaded) reader to revise some of his views concerning Baudelaire's development as a poet by showing that his well-known interest in the "unreal city" as well as his taste for subdued puns started at a very early stage in his career. In contrasting somewhat artificially the historical approach with the methods of New Criticism and in adding a few remarks on phenomenology and structuralism, I have had to dwell on the mysterious act of reading; but I have so far failed to discuss the really essential problems -the nature of a literary work and the aesthetic issues involved in its analysis. A few remarks on poetry may help to clarify my attitude as a critic. I do not believe that a poem or, for that matter, any creative work is, strictly speaking, an imitation of the "real," either external or internal. Obviously, the poet makes use of recognizable phenomena and incorporates them, after suitable transformations, into, his creations, but usually without wishing to reproduce and perpetuate them. As Baudelaire stated in his "Confiteor de l'artiste," a poet is involved in a life and death struggle with the "real." He must somehow destroy it so that his own work may prevail. In short, the work of art exists at the expense of "reality" and thrives best in the midst of deprivation and bloodless destruction. The artist thus tends to sacrifice the world around and within him on the altar of his projected creation. This may explain the prevalence in art of violence, suffering and every form of destruction or negation.


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