Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From the Goncourt Journal

Friday, 10 January 1890

At last Wednesday's dinner, the Princess, talking literature and turning to me, asked me ingenuously: 'But why do you always want to break new ground?' To which I replied: 'Because literature renews itself like everything in this world and it is only the people who are at the head of those renovations that survive.... Because, without suspecting it, you yourself admire only the literary revolutions of the past.... Because—let's take an example—Racine, the great, illustrious Racine, was hissed and booed by Pradon's admirers, by the supporters of the old-fashioned theatre, and because that Racine whom critics use to attack modern dramatists was just as much a revolutionary in his own time as certain authors are today'.

There's a tension here – de Goncourt appears to be expressing a timeless truth, and indeed there's one sense in which what he said to the Princess seems to me absolutely true. But notice the date: he's talking in, and speaking for, a particular era, when, for example the avant-garde was taking shape (Pound's 'Make it new' is a later manifestation of de Goncourt's idea, and Eliot's argument in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' expresses it more conservatively – for the English domestic context, perhaps, as opposed to the European modernist one). This passage needs to be read in context – in fact it expresses an important part of the context in which we read late 19th/early 20th century literature and art.

But just as the term 'avant garde' becomes problematic when divorced from its historical context (or, as it were, extended out of it), so de Goncourt's claim about revolutionary literature becomes problematic if we seek to apply it to our own era, one in which talk of 'revolution' is no longer so clearly linked to contemporary political practice, and in which the idea of 'renewal' might connote something very different – for example it might draw on late twentieth-century notions of nature and identity. When contemporary poets talk about poetic revolutions, do they consider that they are transferring idiom from the realm of serious political discourse, or of pop culture, television news and advertising?

Still, I would not like to say that de Goncourt was wrong. It just goes to show that we adopt others' critical vocabularies at our peril: the safest, though also the hardest course would be to invent our own.


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