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Review of Delehanty, Ann T. Literary Knowing in Neoclassical France: From Poetics to Aesthetics. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 209. $80.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013) : 96–99
Christopher Braider
Article Text: 

The great merit of Delehanty’s book is to challenge a pervasive myth responsible for the grand siècle’s monolithic isolation from the general flow of French cultural history: the notion of the era’s near universal sub­scription to la doctrine classique.  Whether articulated in terms of neo-Aristotelian unities, the system of bienséances, or the rigid separation of “higher” and “lower” genres, the French seventeenth century’s poetic out­put and the critical apparatus deployed to describe and evaluate it are said to have been the subject of fixed rational rules grounded in the putatively objective properties of the poetic work of art. It sufficed to set a given work alongside the timeless archetypes of the ancient past and apply the infallible laws those archetypes teach in order to determine its character and worth. True, especially dating from the querelle des anciens et des modernes touched off by Perrault’s “Siècle de Louis le Grand” of 1687, the discourse of classical rules was increasingly confronted by the emer­gent, sentiment-based discourse of taste: an enigmatic organ of appreciation possessed of an ineffable je ne sais quoi impervious to ra­tional legislation. The rise of taste is nonetheless said to have marked the beginning of the end of classical doctrine, ushering in a defiantly modern, unapologetically anti-classical culture whose triumph coincides with the transition to the siècle des Lumières. Where, then, les classiques asserted the primacy of a rational poetics of objective rules, enlightened modernes explored an aesthetics rooted in private feeling that licensed the eighteenth-century rejection of eternal verities in favor of the contingencies of empirical experience.

Delehanty opens her counter-narrative by showing how the discourse of feeling was decisively at work at the very moment classical culture reached its apogee with the inauguration of Louis XIV’s personal reign in 1661. As she notes in her introduction, on “mimesis and transcendence” in neoclassical France, the noontime of the poetics of rules is largely con­fined to the decades from 1630 to 1660, when the order of the day was perfection of the dramatic and especially tragic vraisemblance required to achieve a fully convincing imitation of affecting human action. So long as poets focused on the representational technologies needed to create the emotional impact associated with a well-wrought tragic plot, the discourse of rules held sway. However, even at this stage the rules aimed not simply to convince but above all to please; and the pleasure involved was con­sciously emotional—a pleasure, moreover, that, as the tragedies of Pierre Corneille in particular demonstrate, was readily described as sublime. As Delehanty remarks, the emphasis on mimesis, creating a persuasive repre­sentation of human action, inevitably constrained dramatic poetry’s reach: “Tragedies present the human condition, allow us to see ourselves, and move us to reform ourselves, if necessary. They do not go beyond the limits of our world or our understanding” (16). Nevertheless, especially in the vraisemblance extraordinaire that Corneille claimed for his own pro­ductions, poetic mimesis could and did strain the confines of ordinary experience by inducing readers and spectators to swallow feats of self-sacrificial nobility they would have choked on in the natural course of things.

It is, though, only in the years following Louis XIV’s seizure of per­sonal power that the ersatz transcendence in which Corneille specialized became a dominant public theme. As Delehanty puts it, “In the late 1660s and early 1670s, the aspirations for the literary work changed signifi­cantly. No longer was the goal of the literary work only to show us the human condition, but also it aspired to something beyond that condition. Literary criticism took a turn toward the transcendental realm” (18). In making this turn, poets and their critics laid claim to a mode of knowing as transcendental as poets’ newfound aspirations. Where the rule-based po­etics of mimesis set limits roughly coincident with those of ordinary experience, the self-conscious transcendentalisms of the nascent Ludovi­can age pushed beyond; and the vehicle of transcendence was the je ne sais quoi of aesthetic feeling.

The most obvious signal of this change is the publication of Boileau’s 1674 translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime. In the perspective of the traditional interpretation of la doctrine classique, this presents an apparent paradox. For, on the basis of the simultaneous publication of L’Art poétique, Boileau is conventionally identified as the very embodiment of the theory of classical rules. The turning point in Delehanty’s counter-narrative is accordingly chapter 3, “Boileau and the Sublime,” in which she not only argues for the emergent role of transcendence in L’Art poétique itself but goes on to discuss Boileau’s increasing abandonment of a poetics of rules throughout the rest of his career, culminating in his last three Réflexions, where analysis of the objective properties of literary works yields to talk about the effects the sublime produces on readers in the domain of transcendent feeling.

What gives Delehanty’s ground-breaking reading of Boileau still greater weight is the way she anchors that poet’s evolving transcendental­ist speculations in the antecedent writings of Pascal and Bouhours. Pascal supplies at once the warrant and model for the story the book tells. As Delehanty argues in chapter 1, Pascal captures not only the underlying conflict between the human condition on which literary mimesis fastens and the transcendence of God but also the key appeal to inchoate feeling, the famous Pascalian “heart,” as the one true means of achieving knowl­edge of the absolute. As Delehanty subtly demonstrates, Pascal’s model poses problems. If the chief organ of literary knowing is the heart, ena­bling poets and readers to escape the confines of mere mimetic reason in the way Pascal urges it does in our relation to the divine, then literature arrogates creative powers reserved for God alone. Moreover, as Pascal sees it, the only means of provoking the conversion of flesh-bound crea­tures like us is the kind of direct, personal teaching modeled by Jesus Christ in the gospels and provided by private reading of scripture con­ceived as the living word of God. Whence, in chapter 2, Delehanty’s analysis of Bouhours’s efforts to thread the needle of “divine and human creation” in order to grant the latter the power of adducing sacred truths without falling into the sacrilege of assigning human beings a divinity they cannot possess. What Boileau finds in the sublime, then, is a creative power authenticated precisely by what Longinus had already called the more than merely human origin for which the sublime serves as the me­dium. In the encounter with the sublime we discover both truths that transcend ordinary human experience and our own equally transcendent power to do so. The je ne sais quoi of sublime feeling thereby enables us to have our cake and eat it, too, in that what sublime poets create and readers feel is our own only insofar as we become vehicles of the tran­scendence sublimity presents.

In a sense, Delehanty’s story reaches its high point with Boileau: the rest reads like a tale of inevitable decline. With chapter 4, on Rapin, the rigorous transcendence Pascal, Bouhours, and Boileau aim for fades into the sentimentality of moral emotion. What had given access, however im­perfectly, to knowledge of the divine becomes a means of teaching virtue; and while virtue makes us better beings, it does not change our natures as carnal inhabitants of the world of lowly mimesis. Rapin’s disenchanting emphasis on virtue grows still more limiting in his English successor, Dennis, the subject of chapter 5. For though Dennis seeks to ground liter­ary experience in scriptural religion, he can only do so on the basis of a theory of mind that reduces both literature and scripture to an empty occa­sion for the manifestation of mental powers that have, in the end, nothing to do with either. A distinctively literary mode of knowing ceases to be literary at all, opening the way for the aesthetic theories of Du Bos, where, as Delehanty argues in chapter 6, the focus on the psychology of human emotion drives out not only detailed analysis of the works of art that prompt it but transcendence as well.

In one sense, Delehanty’s version of the shift from classical poetics to Enlightenment aesthetics brings us back to what has always seemed its retrospective moment of inception, namely the emergence of eighteenth-century aesthetics seen as at once a triumph and consequence of Enlight­enment secularity. To the absolutism of classical rules enlightened moderns oppose the relativisms of human experience; and a prime articu­lation of this contrast is the doctrine of the aesthetic and the primacy it awards pure private feeling. However, by showing both how deeply the antecedents of Enlightenment aesthetics reach back into the neoclassical age and how the proto-aesthetics of the sublime are linked to a thirst for transcendence Pascal’s and Boileau’s early eighteenth-century descen­dants reject, Delehanty enables us to begin to think about the underlying historical dialectic by which, in the aesthetic writings of Kant and the Ro­mantics if not of Burke and Hume, transcendence makes a comeback. What I most heartily recommend in the book is thus the renewed sense of dynamism it brings both to the grand siècle and to its contribution to the larger patterns of French and more broadly European intellectual and artistic culture.

Christopher Braider, University of Colorado, Boulder

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