The Shock of the Ancient Literature and History in Early Modern France
by Larry F. Norman
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-59148-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-59150-6
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The cultural battle known as the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns served as a sly cover for more deeply opposed views about the value of literature and the arts. One of the most public controversies of early modern Europe, the Quarrel has most often been depicted as pitting antiquarian conservatives against the insurgent critics of established authority. The Shock of the Ancient turns the canonical vision of those events on its head by demonstrating how the defenders of Greek literature—rather than clinging to an outmoded tradition—celebrated the radically different practices of the ancient world.

At a time when the constraints of decorum and the politics of French absolutism quashed the expression of cultural differences, the ancient world presented a disturbing face of otherness. Larry F. Norman explores how the authoritative status of ancient Greek texts allowed them to justify literary depictions of the scandalous. The Shock of the Ancient surveys the diverse array of aesthetic models presented in these ancient works and considers how they both helped to undermine the rigid codes of neoclassicism and paved the way for the innovative philosophies of the Enlightenment. Broadly appealing to students of European literature, art history, and philosophy, this book is an important contribution to early modern literary and cultural debates.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Larry F. Norman is associate professor of Romance languages and literatures, theater and performance studies, and in the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

REVIEWS

The Shock of the Ancient is one of the most intelligent and interesting works on seventeenth-century literature that I have read in the past few years. Well-researched, thought-provoking, and very engaging, Larry F. Norman’s book makes a clear point and makes it compellingly: that the French classical period was far more aware of questions relating to its own historicism than we moderns tend to believe and that the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns indeed reflected a protomodern sensibility of self and otherness. Readable and accessible, The Shock of the Ancient will appeal to scholars and students alike.”

— Richard E. Goodkin, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Witty, free of jargon, and filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of sources, as well as an up-to-date view of recent literary and cultural debates, this book will shed vivid new light on this important historical controversy.”

— John D. Lyons, University of Virginia

“Larry Norman’s account of the cultural debate known as the querelle des ancients et des modernes is revisionist and lean, yet detailed and with depth. . . . Doing away with a whole range of cherished stereotypes and teleologies, Norman explores the tactics of this debate, combining smart synopsis with in-depth knowledge of a wide range of materials. . . . Norman’s fresh road map is an excellent one.”

— Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Rich, learned, and nuanced.”

— Choice

“This study of literary transformations recovers a neoclassical world that had been lost to us, obscured, ironically, by the consequences of a later quarrel—the Romantics’ debate with neoclassicism. Norman makes evident what the Romantics made us forget: just how scandalous those ancients were.”

— Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature

“Solidly structured and agreeably written, Larry Norman’s book turns all the evidence into a beneficial, even provocative, read, as much for specialists of the seventeenth century and the reception of Antiquity as for those interested in literary history.”

— Fabula

“Luminously written and argued, The Shock of the Ancient is the work of that too-rare being, a literary scholar who writes always to inform rather than simply to impress. . . . The single best, most nuanced account now available of what was at stake in the Quarrel, the one with which all students of the period (and of the origins of modernity in literature) should start.”
— Reviews in History

“Norman approaches the quarrel like an archaeologist who spots a museum object most visitors would only accord a passing approbatory glance, immediately recognizing its true value, seizing it and scraping away at the surface to reveal its most interesting and valuable features to his fellow museum-goers. Experts in the field, students, and even those with a casual interest in the early modern French period will find his work accessible and appealing.”
— French Review

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0001
[ancient texts, antiquity, modernity, historicism, presentism, historical outlook, ancient world]
This chapter introduces this book's exploration of how new conceptions of literature and its prerogatives arose from a rereading of the most ancient texts. But first, the chapter states, it is necessary to fully appreciate how those ancient texts came to possess disturbing, even explosive, power. That power depended on a rising historical outlook which radically defamiliarized the ancient world and made it “so little resemble our own.” Part 1 of this work thus examines the period's increasing sensitivity to the divide between antiquity and modernity. The second part of the book turns from cool-headed efforts to historicize antiquity to the impassioned responses that this historicized past provoked when related (and opposed) to modernity. The emphasis shifts from ancient Greece to modern Paris and Versailles, or, phrased more accurately, from the concept of historicism to the rhetoric of presentism. The last part looks at few aesthetic issues. (pages 1 - 8)
This chapter is available at:
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Part 1. Historical Sensibility

- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0002
[neoclassical age, history, literature, antiquity, Greco-Roman past, historical time, modern achievements]
From the mid-seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries—at the heart of what is called the French neoclassical age—poets, critics, and philosophers radically rethought how history shapes literature. Key to this rethinking was a new, and often disturbing, understanding of the cultures of antiquity that had been considered the foundation for later modern achievements. It is one of history's ironies that the modern period characterized as “classical” (or “neoclassical”) came to adopt a sharply critical distance in regard to the very Greco-Roman past that it apparently so admired. To understand the “shock of the ancient” is to wrestle with this basic paradox: the fracturing of historical time that fundamentally defamiliarizes classical antiquity was the work of an age that also often wished to coexist with that increasingly remote era. (pages 11 - 34)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0003
[modernity, customs, literary history, ancients, past and present, Chénier]
It is a commonplace in literary history to say that the moderns of today will quickly become the ancients of tomorrow. Such is time's work. But Chénier's remark reminds us of perhaps a more interesting, and inverse, truth: today's “Ancients” (that is, defenders of the ancients) may tomorrow seem a bit too “Modern,” too deeply tied to their own present moment and its codes and customs. According to Chénier's logic, Boileau would only acquire the authentic force of an Ancient when his own century is invested through passing time with its own aura of antiquity. There are Ancient and Modern positions to be found in writings, but no pure and simple Ancients and Moderns among actual writers. A harsher judgment might be that there are only failed Ancients and failed Moderns. The inescapable present fetters the first; the inescapable past, the second. (pages 35 - 50)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0004
[historical change, Ancient, Modern, past learning, quarrel, arts and science, pathways of progress]
The two models of historical change examined in this chapter, complex in and of themselves, often diverged—and sometimes annulled each other. Furthermore, the two parties, Ancient and Modern, often gave very different values to such paradigms of time that resulted. Contending visions of historical evolution thus flourished. Which human endeavors were subject to the accumulation of knowledge, which to the rationalist rupture with past learning? At what rate or rhythm did varying domains progress—and might progress in the future? And what value should be assigned to such “progress”? The most basic divergence in the pathway of progress, all agreed, concerns the distinction between the arts and the sciences. The growing perception of the gulf between these two domains, the distinct awareness of what we call the “two cultures,” is among the key legacies left by the quarrel. (pages 51 - 62)
This chapter is available at:
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0005
[Boileau, antiquity, authority, civil dialogue, past, distinct ages, continuity]
Boileau's attitudes toward antiquity, as contradictory as they may at times be, reaffirm his essential point regarding the foreign nature of the past: it is to be treated either (or alternately) as a respected interlocutor in a civil dialogue between distinct ages, or as something of an awe-inspiring creature from a distant land. In either case, Boileau is certainly not appealing to a sense of unbroken continuity with that past, and much less to any claim that such a past might stake to its authority over the present. Indeed, Boileau is quite careful not to apply the word “authority” to antiquity, nor to require from modern readers an unquestioned “submission” to past masters. His polemical heirs followed suit. (pages 63 - 74)
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Part 2. The Shock

- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0006
[ancient past, passion, Renaissance, quarrel, antiquity, classical past]
When the ancient past, once so intimately bound to the present, becomes fundamentally alien, it can then, as with any such estrangement, arouse longing, repulsion, or cool indifference. The last option, however, has limited viability at a moment when the separation is so raw that it inevitably provokes passion. The time of the quarrel was such a moment. The Renaissance identification with an idealized antiquity (partly undermined though it was by the humanists' own critical investigations) could not yet be casually discarded. The attachment to the classical past was thus more likely to turn to sour distaste than to a dispassionate and rational evaluation. (pages 77 - 88)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0007
[monarchy, ancient liberties, Rousseau, modernity, antiquity, quarrel]
The rebellious idealization of ancient liberties was perhaps most famously captured by a page in the Confessions in which Rousseau credited his “indomptable” “esprit libre et républicain” to his early and enthusiastic reading of the classics: “ever contemplating Rome and Athens; living, so to speak, with their great men, […] I believed myself Greek or Roman; I believed myself the character whose life I read.” Whether or not the French revolution was indeed inspired, as Chateaubriand claimed (followed by Constant and Marx), by thinkers “living more in Rome and Athens than in their own country, [who] sought to revive in Europe the ways of antiquity,” the power of the ancient countermodel to modern monarchy was certainly a hallmark of the generations that succeeded the quarrel. (pages 89 - 98)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0008
[quarrel, Christian culture, pagan culture, Renaissance, Greco-Roman polytheism, rationalism]
In many ways the quarrel can be seen as another battle in the long struggle between Christian and pagan cultures—or, at least, pagan culture as digested and transmitted by Renaissance humanists. It is certainly true that few causes so clearly united the Moderns as their shared animosity toward Greco-Roman polytheism, to which they opposed a rationalist form of Christianity. Of course, the union of Cartesian reason and Christian faith was not always an easy alliance, despite the prodigious efforts at synthesis by figures such as Malebranche. Sometimes the balance tilts toward faith, as with Perrault, and sometimes toward a more critical rationalism, as with Fontenelle. And in Fontenelle's case, the wry skepticism concerning the abuses of religion may even cast doubt on the sincerity of his praise of the reasonableness of Christianity. (pages 99 - 112)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0009
[pagan gods, divine nature, spiritual error, literary characters, brutality, sociability, morality]
In the view of the Moderns, the indecency of the pagan gods exposes more than the purely intellectual and spiritual errors arising from the ancients' misapprehension of divine nature. The scandal of paganism also reveals, as Fontenelle remarked, the day-to-day moral crudeness of the humans who created those illusory gods as mirrors of their own savage nature. The pagans had the gods they deserved. This chapter turns then from gods to humans—or rather to human literary characters, for it is above all the poetic representations of exemplary figures that obsess the Moderns. The two scandals, theological and moral, frequently converge. Just as was the case with the primitive pagan gods, the moral fault that the moderns find most characteristic of “first men”—and most reviling to contemporary norms—is their unreflective brutality. (pages 113 - 130)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0010
[antiquity, relativism, cultural pluralism, ancient literature, modern norms, Longepierre]
In order to justify the most shocking features of antiquity, its defenders frequently adopted a form of relativism, or of cultural pluralism. This chapter explores the broader implications of the historical sensibility they embraced. Ancient apologists argued that the only true way to appreciate ancient literature is to appreciate cultural difference. To topple the tyranny of decorum, the Ancients did not hesitate to question the solidity of the modern norms and ideals that underpin it. In 1687 Longepierre, addressing how readers might overcome their distaste for the ancient world, adumbrates the argument that the Ancients will follow. Longepierre goes beyond a simple plea to accept literary representations of other ages; he demands a certain respect for those ages in and of themselves. (pages 131 - 150)
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Part 3. Aesthetics: The Geometric & the Sublime

- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0011
[Longepierre, modernity, arts of language, Discours, cultural supremacy, antiquity]
In his 1687 reply to Perrault's Modern manifesto, Longepierre makes many concessions. Indeed, he concedes the advantage to modernity in all domains except one: the arts of language. When the Discours turns to the delicate subject of the current king's standing in comparison to the great ages of antiquity, Longepierre prudently avoids belittling as inferior the modern writers whom Louis XIV himself has patronized, and who represent his personal stake in history's ongoing contest for cultural supremacy. Instead, genuflecting before royal glory, Longepierre encourages the monarch to demonstrate once again his famed magnanimity by granting the prize, in this lone domain, to the humbled past. After all, Louis possesses a surfeit of superiority; if anything, he suffers from an embarrassment of prizes and palms. (pages 153 - 184)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0012
[rationalist aesthetics, Boileau, On the Sublime, poetics, Renaissance humanists, classicism]
The key to the Ancients' defiant response to the new rationalist aesthetics is to be found in Boileau's translation of the then largely neglected Greek treatise, On the Sublime. The translation, which included a highly original critical preface to the work, returns us to that crucial year in the prologue to the quarrel, 1674. As the polemics over Euripides' Alcestis were pitting Perrault against Racine, Boileau entered the fray by publishing the Traité du sublime alongside his Art poétique. Each of Boileau's two critical works performed important yet distinct missions. The Art poétique rehearsed the basic principles of poetics inherited from Horace and Aristotle and digested by Renaissance humanists. Aimed at winning over the common sense of the leisured reading public, the poem offered an elegantly modulated form of classicism: it counterbalanced the needs of method and regularity with a forceful defense of instinct, inspiration, and genius. (pages 185 - 212)
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- Larry F. Norman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226591506.003.0013
[ancients, native language, quarrel, Voltaire, Ancient movement, sublime]
Voltaire sums up the guiding principles developed by the French defenders of the ancients: the necessity of reading the original work with sensitivity to the materiality of its native language; the preference for the imperfect “genius of invention” over the mechanical operations of “mere reason and exactitude”; the celebration of sublime inspiration operating “without art, without rules”; and, finally, the emblematic image of poetry not as philosophical enlightenment but as Longinian sunbursts and “flashes of lightning.” Yet when Voltaire expresses his debt to the people who helped him grasp these grounding principles, he cites not his compatriots Boileau or Boivin, but the English bard himself and his British admirers. The tolerant, empirical, and sublimely inspired English appear to advance all the causes of the Ancient movement. As for the case of Homer, Voltaire in particular draws upon an image of the epic poet deeply etched in the public mind by Alexander Pope's monumental 1715 translation of the Iliad. (pages 213 - 226)
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Notes

Bibliography

Index