10 May, 2007

The kids today, 1642-1942

In 1724, Alain-René Lesage published the second volume of his popular picaresque novel, Gil Blas de Santillane, begun in 1715. In the thirteenth chapter of the seventh book, which opens this volume, Gil Blas bumps into an old friend, Fabrice Nuñez, after many years. Fabrice, once a lowly servant in Valladolid, has since gone to Madrid and become a successful littérateur. The encounter is an opportunity for Lesage, as Gil, to poke fun at literary fashions. Fabrice says of his early adventures in Madrid:
Je connus bientôt Lope de Vega Carpio, Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra et les autres fameux auteurs; mais, préférablement à ces grands hommes, je choisis pour mon précepteur un jeune bachelier cordouan, l'incomparable don Luis de Gongora, le plus beau génie que l'Espagne ait jamais produit.
Lope de Vega died in 1635, Cervantes in 1616, and Gongora in 1627. Let us say, then, that the present conversation is taking place in the 1630s or 40s. Fabrice, it transpires, is a Culturanista. Gil, glancing at one of his friend's sonnets, admits that he cannot make head or tail of it—'malgré le charme de la lecture, je trouvai l'ouvrage si obscur que je n'y compris rien du tout'. Fabrice takes this reaction as a compliment, claiming obscurity for a literary virtue:
Les sonnets, les odes et les autres ouvrages qui veulent du sublime ne s'accommodent pas du simple et du naturel, C'est l'obscurité qui en fait tout le mérite, Il suffit que le poète croie s'entendre—
Gil, a good commonsensical sort of fellow, couldn't agree less: 'Il faut du bon sens et de la clarté dans toutes les poésies, de quelque nature qu'elles soient'. And a piece of prose written as a preface turns out to be even worse, full of 'expressions trop recherchées, des mots qui ne sont point marqués au coin du public, des phrases entortillées, pour ainsi dire. En un mot, ton style est singulier'. The worst that Gil can say of a style is that it is 'singular', which seems odd to us modernists. Again comes Fabrice's reply:
Pauvre ignorant! Tu ne sais pas que tout prosateur qui aspire aujourd'hui à la réputation d'une plume délicate affecte cette singularité de style, ces expressions détournées qui te choquent. Nous sommes cinq ou six novateurs hardis, qui avons entrepris de changer la langue du blanc au noir; et nous en viendrons à bout, s'il plaît à Dieu, en dépit de Lope de Vega, de Cervantes, et de tous les autres beaux esprits qui nous chicanent sur nos nouvelles façons de parler.
Gongorism (perhaps closer to its contemporaries Browne and Urquhart than to Euphuism, which was by then fifty years old) was the height of the overornate 'Asiatic' style in Early Modern Spain, and this is what Lesage is ostensibly satirising—the poets who value obscurity over all else, who want to tear up the linguistic and poetic traditions in favour of a radical new style.

*

On Monday, the 5th of August, 1850, the French critic Sainte-Beuve published in the French newspaper Constitutionnel, as part of a regular series of 'Causeries du Lundi', a little essay on the work of Lesage, and in particular on Gil Blas, which he greatly admired. He describes the author's instinctive hostility to the literary currents of his period: 'Le Sage semble avoir été peu favorable à ce qu'on appelle la grande et haute littérature de son temps, qu'il trouvait guindée [stuffy, contrived]'. Lesage, we are told, wrote around a hundred pieces that contain the germs of what by 1850 had become 'les vaudevilles, les opéras-comiques, nos pièces des Variétés et des Boulevards'. (Variétés, eh?—Bien!)

Sainte-Beuve thought that Lesage's 'literary theory' could be extracted from Gil's conversation with Fabrice, who 'lui expose la théorie moderne':
Sachons biens qu'en écrivant ces choses, Le Sage avait en vue Fontenelle, Montesquieu peut-être, certainement Voltaire, qu'il trouvait trop recherché et visant à renchérir sur la langue de Racine, de Corneille, et des illustres devanciers.
This surprises us. None of these authors wrote in a style that could be compared to Gongora. Voltaire, at least in 1724, when he was known for L'Oedipe—the most successful French play of that century—and for the Henriade—compared by Pierre Bayle to Homer and Tasso—seems to us the very model of unrevolutionary classicism. Sainte-Beuve, pressed for his own definition of a classic, praises the eighteenth century giants—Montesquieu and Voltaire, also Buffon and Rousseau, Goethe and Pope—but above all he prizes Molière. He concludes:
There comes a time in life when, all our journeys over, our experiences ended, there is no enjoyment more delightful than to study and thoroughly examine the things we know, to take pleasure in what we feel, and in seeing and seeing again the people we love: the pure joys of our maturity. Then it is that the word classic takes its true meaning, and is defined for every man of taste by an irresistible choice. . . We have neither more time for experiments, nor a desire to go forth in search of pastures new. We cling to our friends, to those proved by long intercourse.
If Lesage advocated literary conservatism, possibly preferring Racine to Voltaire, and certainly preferring Cervantes to Gongora, then so does Sainte-Beuve, although a century has given the comfort of 'classicism' to Fontenelle and Voltaire, as well as to Lesage himself.

*

In 1942, the art critic Bernard Berenson, known for the conservatism of his taste, was holed up in his villa in Florence as the war went on around him. Gone were the celebrity Florentine expatriates—Adolf von Hildebrand, Herbert Horne, Aby Warburg. Berenson contented himself with an endless list of books—from Plato's complete works to the 'Nazi Koran' Mein Kampf, which Berenson admired for its insight into governance and propaganda, while deploring its maniacal anti-Semitism—and, just for fun, he kept a log of his reading during that year. On the 16th of May, he was reading Sainte-Beuve's Causeries, and copied out this passage, quoted from Lesage's Gil Blas de Santillane:
Si ce sonnet n'est guère intelligible, tant mieux, mon Ami. Les sonnets, les odes, et les autres ouvrages qui veulent du sublime ne s'accomodent pas du simple et du naturel; c'est l'obscurité qui en fait tout le mérite, il suffit que le poète croit s'entendre. . . Nous sommes cinq ou six novateurs hardis qui avons entrepris de changer la langue du blanc ou noir; et nous en viendrons à bout s'il plait à Dieu, en dépit de Lope de Vega et de Cervantes—
He notes, 'How this parallels the efforts of T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, not to speak of others in literature. They will leave even less trace.'

*

Are they ever right?

5 comments:

Biby Cletus said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Blog

Raminagrobis said...

Reminds me of Dr Johnson's pronouncement: 'Nothing odd will do long: Tristram Shany did not last'. Or going further back, Cicero's attitudes towards those upstart novi poetae...

Safe travels, Conrad. Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage...

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, Rami--I thought you might like this one! Yes, the pronouncements of the cultured are always amusing in hindsight. One wonders if the sages of 2400 BC were shaking their heads at "Gilgamesh", newfangled rubbish.

Nach said...

"Fabrice, it transpires, is a Culturanista."

I think you wanna write "Culterano".

One Saludo!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, perhaps. Welcome aboard!