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What Is Literature for?

Author(s): Tzvetan Todorov and John Lyons


Source: New Literary History, Vol. 38, No. 1, What Is Literature Now? (Winter, 2007), pp. 1332
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Is Literature

What

Tzvetan

far

As

back

as

I can

For?

Todorov

I see

remember,

surrounded

myself

by

books.

Both of my parents were professional


librarians; there were always
too many books in our house.
were
They
always coming up with
new
to
for
hold
the
books accumulated
them; meanwhile,
plans
shelving
in the bedrooms
and the hallways, forming fragile piles that I had to
I quickly learned to read and began
to devour classic
crawl between.
stories

in children's

versions: the Arabian Nights, the tales of Grimm and


Tom
Andersen,
Sawyer, Oliver Twist, and Les Mis?rables. One day when I
was eight, I read a whole novel; Imust have been very
I
proud because
wrote in my diary: "Today I read On Grandpa's Knees, a
223-page book,
in an hour and a half!"
As a student in junior high school and high school, I continued
to love
to plunge
into the world
reading. It always gave me a shiver of delight
of

or

the writers?classics

contemporaries,

Bulgarian

or

foreign?whose

I now was reading in complete


I could satisfy my curios
editions.
live
without
adventures,
ity,
experience
fright and happiness,
putting
that troubled my dealings with boys and girls of
up with the frustrations
to do
my own age, among whom I lived. I did not know what I wanted
when I grew up, but I was certain that it would have
to do
something
with literature. Would
I be a writer myself?
I gave it a try: I composed
a
on the lives of dwarfs and
in
in
acts
three
verses,
poems
doggerel
play
even
a
I
I
novel?but
started
didn't
giants,
get past the first page. I soon
books

felt
what

that
would

such

writing
come
later,

was

not

I chose

my
my

vocation.
major

Without
at

the

university:

knowing
I was

sure

for
going

to

of Sofia; my profession
study literature. In 1956 Iwent to the University
would be talking about books.
bloc, and all humanities
Bulgaria was then part of the Communist
courses were
disciplines were shaped by the official ideology. Literature
half scholarship
and half propaganda:
literary works past and present
were
and measured
to the standards of Marxism-Le
weighed
according
to show how books
ninism. We were required
the correct
represented
how they failed to do this. Neither
in
otherwise,
ideology?or,
believing
Communism

that many

nor

of my

being

rebellious,

especially

countrymen

took:

in public,

I retreated

silence

into

or

stance

lip service

New Literary History, 2007, 38: 13-32

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to

14

NEW

official

the

in

slogans;

an

private,

intense

HISTORY

and

meetings

lectures,

that no one would


the ones who
doctrine,

suspect to be the spokes


had been lucky enough
or those who lived
of Marxism-Leninism

to authors

devoted

especially
people for Communist
to write before the imposition
in countries where
they could write
To

of

life

LITERARY

our

complete

university

freely.
we

degree,

to

had

a master's

compose

thesis at the end of our fifth year. How could I write about literature
one of the
under to the dominant
without knuckling
ideology? I chose
on the study
me avoid the orthodoxy.
I
concentrated
let
that
only paths
in
For instance,
value in themselves.
of things that had no ideological
nature of the text itself, its linguistic
the material
works of literature,
of
form. I was certainly not alone in doing this: the Russian Formalists
them. At the
the 1920s had blazed this trail, and others soon followed
for

university,

our

instance,

most

interesting

was

professor

specialist

For my thesis I did a comparison


of two versions of a
in versification.
a
of the twentieth
from
the
author
beginning
long novella by Bulgarian
to
the
I
limited
and
changes he had made
century,
grammatical
myself
one

from
the

tense

perfect

"in

more

this

how

know

in my
favor.
as we
to
used

than

frequent

and I ran no risk of violating

necessarily
Europe,"

cat-and-mouse
A
say

the

time,

along
that
is, on

the "Iron Curtain"


(an image that we did not
was
it
because
just about impossible).
crossing
as

reputation

where
unite

the

city

arts

of

I could pursue my
my

private

and

literature

and

my

public

to

ended?
a

for

leave
the

the

other

year

side

of

think at all exaggerated


its
I chose Paris because
me!

dazzled

This

was

limits, where

love of literature without

convictions

have

would

game
came

chance
at

intransitive
ones,
replaced
. .This
the
way
imperfect.

verbs

the censor,
escaped
the
of
taboos
Party.

never

I will

transitive

other:

the

became

Iwrote

everything
ideological
not

to

version

occupation,

and

thus

place

I could
escape

the collective
regime in which
spread by the totalitarian
schizophrenia
I had been living.
In
than I thought.
As it turned out, things were a bit more difficult
to
used
at
I
had
course
the
studies
of
the
gotten
paying
my
university,
to the features of literary works that escaped
attention
ideology: style,
composition,

narrative

modes?in

short,

literary

technique.

Because

at

since
first I was sure that I would be staying for only a year in France,
to
learn
I
wanted
that was the length of the passport they had given me,
were neglected
and marginalized
these
about
They
subjects.
everything
in Bulgaria, where they did little to advance the Communist
cause, but in
France, the land of freedom,
they would be studied in depth! Yet I had
trouble finding any such courses in Parisian universities.
Literary study
I had no idea how to find
was divided up by nations and by centuries;
to the things that interested me.
the professors who paid any attention

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IS LITERATURE

WHAT

15

FOR?

And itwas certainly difficult for a foreign student like me to find his way
institutions and their curricula.
around the labyrinth of academic
I had with me a letter from the dean of the faculty of letters of the
So one day in May, 1963,
of Sofia to his Parisian counterpart.
University
on the door of an office in the Sorbonne
I knocked
(at the time the
the door of the dean of the faculty of letters, the
only Paris university),
historian Aimard. When he had read the letter, he asked me what I was
to continue
the study of style, lan
looking for. I told him that I wanted
and

guage,

literary

theory?in

"But

general.

you

can't

these

study

things

in?" Feeling
the
literature do you want to specialize
in general! What
floor collapsing under me, I replied rather pitifully that French literature
would do. I realized at the same time that my French was getting mixed
up; itwas a bit shaky at the time. The dean cast a condescending
glance
literature with
that I would do better to study Bulgarian
and suggested
a

must

specialist?there

be

some

in France.

I was a little discouraged,


but I continued my quest, asking around
I
few
And so one day a professor of psychology,
the
knew.
among
people
said: "I know
the friend of a friend, hearing me explain my troubles,
someone
in these oddball
else who is interested
subjects; he's a teach
at
the
Sorbonne
named
G?rard
Genette."
We met in a dark
assistant
ing
hallway

in

rue

where

Serpente,

hit it off right away. He


was

with

professor

there

explained
seminar

were

to me,
at

the

several

among
des

?cole

classrooms,

other

things,

Hautes

Etudes,

and

we

that there
where

we could see each other again. The name of this professor


(I had never
heard it before) was Roland Barthes.
The beginning
of my professional
life in France
is linked to these
encounters.
It did not take me long to realize that one year in Paris
was not going to be enough and that I needed
to stay longer in France.
a dissertation
to do my first doctorate,
I registered with Barthes
that I
to the CNRS (National
in 1966. Soon after, I was appointed
submitted
Center

for

Scientific

Research),

where

I have

spent

I did a French
Meanwhile,
suggestion,
of the Russian Formalists,
little known in France,
of Literature, that came out in 1965. Later, Genette
series, and
Po?tique and an associated monograph
at Genette's

at the university
the literary curriculum
into nations and centuries
and to open
have

to free

my

whole

career.

translation of the work


under the title Theory
and I ran the journal
we tried to influence
it from fragmentation

it toward what

literary works

in common.

In the following years I gradually


life. I married,
settled into French
had children, and became a French citizen. I began to vote and to read
in public life, because
I was
the newspaper,
interested
becoming more
was
not
it
controlled
that
by ideological
discovering
necessarily
dog
mas, as it was in totalitarian countries. Without
falling into unqualified

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16

NEW

I was

admiration,

see

to

happy

that

was

France

LITERARY

pluralist

HISTORY

democracy,

in turn had an
respectful of each individual's freedom. This realization
of literary analysis: the thought
impact on my attitude toward methods
in each work, the values that it transmits, no longer had to be
present
into ready-made
and therefore
I no
containers,
squeezed
ideological
set
to
to
needed
them
aside
and
not
them.
This
led
me,
longer
ignore
to deny what was then called "structural analysis" of
but
works,
literary
to include the useful things from that analysis alongside
other forms of
the overall meaning
of the work. Structural
study in pursuing
analysis
one doesn't attack but that
had become
like philology:
that
something
one doesn't
especially feel the need to defend either. Since realizing this,
toward the end of the 1970s, I have lost interest in studying the methods
of analysis and have instead engaged
in analysis itself. In other words, I
to the discovery of the authors of the past.
devote myself
that moment
on, my love of literature was no longer confined by
a
to acquire new tools
in
education
totalitarian
my
country. So I needed
for my work: I felt the need to learn about the discoveries
and concepts
now
of psychology,
and
Since
the
authors'
ideas
anthropology,
history.
From

to center

returned

At

the

sions.
of

same

verbal

of

ideas about man

them

and

better,

in

societies,

philosophy.
the

time

Literature

to understand

in order

in the history

myself
and political

moral

I decided,

stage,

to immerse

does

utterances

ofthat
object
not
emerge
which

with

literature

shares

on

took

literature,
study,
a void
from
but

an

from

new

dimen

environment

characteristics.

many

It

is no accident that the boundary between


literature and other discourses
has often shifted. I felt myself attracted by these other forms of expres
it. In The Conquest of
sion, not at the expense of literature but alongside
America,

to understand
I read

another,

the sixteenth
In

poraries.

better

century
the

Russian

and

of

course

German

of my

very

Spanish

along with

in the writings

myself

how

accounts

the

and

on

who were

concentration

our

this

camps;

of

conquistadores

contem

and Mayan

moral

taken

one

encounter

cultures

travelers

those of their Aztec

reflections

of people

different

life,

I immersed

away as prisoners
led me

to write

to

Facing

theExtreme. The letters of several writers enabled me, in Les Aventuriers de


an existential
ambition:
that of offering one's life to
Vabsolu, to question
serve

beauty.

historical

The

works,

texts

that

I was

testimonies,

narratives,

reading?personal

reflections,

letters,

memoirs,
texts

anonymous

from

not have,
described

like literary works, the status of fiction, because


lived experience.
like literary works,
However,
they directly
me
let
dimensions
of
the
discover
unknown
world, they moved me
they
me
and
think.
made
profoundly,
they
In other words, the field of literature has broadened
for me, because
it
folklore?did

now

includes,

alongside

poems,

novels,

short

stories,

and

dramatic

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works,

IS LITERATURE

WHAT

the

domain

immense

and

I immediately
as

I did

inflict upon me;

forms

a continuum

them

life but not radically


us

prompts

see

to

helps me

longer

and

me

helps

different

other

that

them.

it, literature

to conceive

ways

real

essays,
that

seek

people

but

lived experiences

understand

from

use,

live. I no

wounds

does not replace

literature

with

answer

to avoid

in adolescence,

could

universe,

why

think of is that literature

literature,

than daily

asks me

or
personal
public
I love
the
literature,

for

written

of narrative

If someone

reflections.

in

17

FOR?

and

Denser

our

expands

it. We

organize

from what other people give us: first our parents and then
the other people near us. Literature opens to the infinite this possibility
of interaction
and thus enriches us infinitely. It brings us irreplaceable
sensations
through which the real world becomes more furnished with
an
more beautiful.
Far from being a simple distraction,
and
meaning
are all formed

entertainment

reserved

us fulfill our human

for

educated

literature

people,

lets

each

one

of

potential.

Literature

to the Absurd

Reduced

As

time passed,
I discovered
with surprise that the important
role I
to
was
not
literature
This
assigned
recognized
by everyone.
discrepancy
struck me first of all in regard to what is taught in schools. I have no
of teaching in French lyc?es, and only a little at the university
experience
once
I became a father, I could not ignore my children's pleas
level; but,
was due. And even
for help on the eve of quizzes or when homework
to
though I did not invest myself totally in this, I began to feel a bit miffed
see that my advice and help tended to get nothing but mediocre
grades!
Later on I got a broader view of literary teaching
in French schools as
a member,
from 1994 to 2004, of a pluridisciplinary
board,
consulting
of
the
of
National
Education.
That
is
I
when
understood
part
Ministry
that there was a wholly different
idea of literature, not just on the part
of a few individual teachers, but in the theory behind
the official direc
tives

that

teachers.

guided

I turn

to the Official Bulletin of the Ministry


of National
Education
with
the
the
(number 6, August 31, 2000)
lyc?e curriculum,
specifically
for
French.
Under
the
of
"Overview
studies,"
guidelines
teaching
heading
states: "The study of texts helps to form student reflections
the document
on:

literary

and

cultural

and

genres

history,

the

construction

of

meaning

and the specificity of texts, argumentation


and the effects of discourse
on those who receive it." The rest of the text
expands on these headings
and explains
that genres "are studied methodically,"
that "registers (for
instance,
"reflecting

the

comic)"

on

the

are

production

dealt

with
and

in

the

reception

next-to-last
of

texts

year

of

constitutes

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lyc?e,
an

that
object

18

LITERARY

NEW

of

As

its own

in

study
tion" will

now

in
right
"considered

and
that
"the elements
lyc?e,"
in a more
analytic
way."
are based
on a choice:
instructions

be

a whole,

these

of

HISTORY

argumenta

that

the

aim

of

that literary analysis


literary analysis is to learn about the instruments
uses. Reading
the students
poems and novels does not lead to making
think about the human condition,
about the individual and society, about
love and hate, and about joy and despair, but about critical concepts,
traditional or modern.
At school, pupils do not learn what lit
talks about but instead what critics talk about.

whether
erature
In

school

every

teachers

subject,

a choice,

face

one

is so

that

funda

that they do not even notice itmost of the time. We can formulate
a bit for the purposes
are we
of the discussion:
it this way, simplifying
or
about
the
itself
about
its
teaching knowledge
discipline
object? And

mental

case:

in our

thus,

illustrated
works

are

that

one

should

a selection

with

study,

above

all,

considered

can

that

essential,

be

to be

methods,

analytic

of literary works? Or

one

should
accessed

the

study

the

through

is the goal and which


is the means?
broadest
range of methods? Which
is required and what remains elective?
What
For other school subjects this choice ismade much more clearly. We
set of disciplines
teach, on one hand, mathematics,
physics, biology?a
in
mind
their
evolution.
On
the other hand,
(the sciences), always keeping
we teach history, and not one method
of historical
among
investigation
For

others.

in

example

the

first

year

of

in France,

lyc?e

it is considered

to bring to life, for the students, turning points in European


important
the birth of the monotheistic
Greek
religions, Renais
democracy,
history:
sance

history,
even

or

nor

if we

so

and

humanism,

of mentalities,

forth.

economic

these

not

do
or

history,

when

concepts

the

to

choose

military,

and concepts

the methodology
use

We

teach

the
or

diplomatic,

history
religious

of each of these approaches,


arises.

occasion

. .
And yet the same choice arises for French
(or English or Spanish
. ) as a
current
in
French
is
reflected
the
the
and
way
taught,
subject;
official curriculum,
(as in physics),
prefers "the study of the discipline"
even though we could instead choose
"the study of the object"
(as in
text
I
above
shows
this
official
that
The
choice, among its
quote
history).
in
of
A
the
first
instructions.
student
other
year
many
lyc?e must above
all succeed
and

the essential

in "mastering
of

"positions

enunciation";

in other

notions

and

of genre
the

words,

student

needs

register"
to be

and into rhetoric and


into the study of semiotics and pragmatics,
can ask ourselves:
we
for
these
due
all
With
respect
disciplines,
poetics.
to
in
All
these subjects are
learn
school?
should they be the main
thing
initiated

abstract

with

constructs,

themselves,

from

created

concepts

literary works; none


their

by

literary

analysis

of these subjects derives

meaning

or

from

their

from

in order

to deal

the literary works

history.

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WHAT

IS LITERATURE

In

and

most

class,

and

of

the

registers,

and
we

here

But

French

time,

internal

works.

19

cannot

teachers

of signifying

modes

metonymy,

literary

FOR?

and effects

external

in

genres

metaphor

must

focalization?they
another
shift

discover

teach

just

of argument,

also

literary

study

teaching.

One concrete
is the way we teach, in 2005, the subject "Lit
example
erature" (Lettres) in the last year of the specialization
L (literature) of a
are
Parisian
vast
There
to
four
major
lyc?e.
subjects
study, such as "major
and "verbal language and images," and with these there
literary models"
are coordinated
literary works, respectively Chr?tien de Troyes's Perceval
and Kafka's The Trial (along with Orson Welles's film). However,
the test
the
on the
students
all
the
school
and
then
questions
get
year
during
baccalaureate

one

examination

type. They

single
in

work

to

relation

an

ours.

for

of

the

So

the

students

are

not

whole,

component
on

the

of the book as a whole

asked

about

the

of

proportion,

of one

role

of

just

of the
of

meaning

for its epoch


a character,

of

or of a detail
during the quest for the Grail, not about the
of that quest itself. The student will be asked whether
The

episode,

significance
Trial

structure

the

overwhelming

the function

nor on the
meaning

that component
or

in an

are,

concern

to

belongs

the

comic

register

or

to

the

absurd,

rather

than

about

Kafka's place in the thought of his period.


How could the way we teach literature in schools have come to this?
The simple answer is that it reflects a change
in university
If
teaching.
most
of
new
French
teachers
have
this
it's
be
lyc?e
adopted
approach,
cause literary studies in the
university has evolved along the same lines:
before being
lyc?e teachers they were students. The shift took place a
earlier, in the 1960s and 1970s and often in the name of
generation
"structuralism." I participated
in this movement.
Should I feel responsible
for the state of the discipline
today?
When
I came to France, at the beginning
of the 1960s, literary studies
in the university were, as I said, dominated
concerns
by very different
from those of today. Alongside
the explication de texte (which was essen
students were mainly expected
to accept
tially an empirical approach),
the national
and historical
framework.
The rare specialists who did
something

else

taught

outside

France

or

not

in

literature

departments.

at length on the
of works, graduate
reflecting
meaning
students made exhaustive
inventories of all that surrounded
such works:
the author's biography,
the possible prototypes of the characters, variants

Rather

than

of the text, and the way the work's


viewed it. I felt the
contemporaries
need to give balance
to that approach with different
that I
approaches
had learned about from my readings in other
languages: from the Rus
sian Formalists,
from the German
theorists of style and forms (Spitzer,
I also
Auerbach,
Kayser), from the authors of American New Criticism.
wanted
scholars to make explicit the concepts
that they used in literary

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20

NEW

to

than

rather

analysis,

in

proceed

intuitive

totally

LITERARY

HISTORY

manner.

Toward

to create a "poetics," that is, the study


this goal, I worked with Genette
of the properties
of literary discourse.
as then?the
To my way of thinking?now
intrinsic approach
(the
of
relation
of
the
constituents
of
the
the
study
literary work to one
the extrinsic approach
should complement
another)
(the study of the
and
aesthetic
This
increased
historical,
context).
ideological,
precision
in the tools of analysis would allow more refined and rigorous study, but
the final goal would
remain the understanding
of the meaning
of the
a
In
works.
with
conference
1969,1
literary
organized
Serge Doubrovsky
on "The Teaching
at Cerisy-la-Salle.
of Literature"
Rereading
today my
comments
in the debate,
I find them clumsy (they are the
concluding
of spoken remarks) but clear on this point. I presented
the
transcription
idea of poetics and I added,
"The disadvantage
of this type of work is,
so to speak, itsmodesty?the
fact that it does not go very far and that it
will never be anything other than a first step, one that consists precisely
at work in the literary text, and
the categories
of noting, of identifying
not

of

My
to

of

speaking

intention

of

that of

(and

a better

create

sense

the

balance

the

text."1

the people

between

around

the

intrinsic

me

at the time) was

and

the

and

extrinsic,

also between
theory and practice. But that is not how things turned
out. The spirit of May, 1968, which did not itself have anything
to do
with

the

of

direction

literary

study,

completely

the

changed

structure

of

the university and the existing hierarchies.


The pendulum
did not stop
went
it
the
in
reached
and
far
the opposite
when
very
midpoint
swinging
direction,
proaches

the

reaching
on
and

the

Such a change
by

the

categories

in literary
of

influence

point

structuralism

of

exclusive
of

literary

intrinsic

ap

theory.

study at the university


or,

alone;

on

concentration

rather,

cannot
we

need

be explained
to understand

structuralism
such a powerful
influence. This brings me
acquired
of
literature.
back to the underlying
conception
During a period of over
a century, literary history dominated
the university curriculum. This was,
a study of causes that led to the creation of the work: social,
principally,
how

political, ethnic, and psychic forces of which the literary text was presumed
to be the result. Now, this history could be the study of the effects of the
on other
its impact on the public, and its influence
text, its diffusion,
authors.

The

was

aim

to

situate

the

literary

work

was viewed with suspicion.


the study of meaning
was held to be destined
forever to lack scientific
to

lowly

rejected
sensibility,

or

writers

newspaper

the view of literature


or

as

an

interpretation

As

critics.

a result,

as the embodiment
of

in a causal

chain,

while

Such

study of meaning
rigor and was thus left

the

university

of a thought

the world.

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tradition

or of a

IS LITERATURE

WHAT

FOR?

21

in the
This long tradition has been pursued and taken to an extreme
recent phase of literary studies. It has been decided now that "the work
imposes the advent of an order that breaks with the existing order, the
of a regime that obeys its own laws and its own logic"2 to the
affirmation
exclusion of a relation with the "empirical world" or with "reality" (words
are

that

now

used

between

only

In

marks).

quotation

other

the

words,

literary work is now portrayed as a closed object made of language, self


In 2006 in the French university,
these abusive
sufficient and absolute.
are

generalizations

always

of

to one

relate

the work

as

presented

learn the dogma


lyc?e students
relation to the rest of the world

self-evident.

Not

to which

another.

no

This,

doubt,

surprisingly,

has no
the parts

literature

according
and they study only

the way

is one

of

reasons

the

in just a few de
students find the literary specialization
uninteresting:
with the literature
cades the number of those getting the baccalaureate
option has gone from 33% to 10%. Why study literature when literature
is only an illustration of the tools to study literature? At the end of their
with a brutal
confronted
studies, students of literature find themselves
in their turn teachers of literature or
choice: either they must become
they must join the unemployed.
Unlike primary and secondary
schools, the French university does not
So in the university the
have to follow a centrally established
curriculum.
most

even

and

varied

the dominant

Still,
about

the world,

teachers

of
an

provide

tendency
and this tendency

French.

recent

The

alternative.

to declare,

dogma?that
ing nothing,

of

are

thought

represented.

to see literature as a discourse


has a noticeable
impact on future

is to refuse

it is true,

can,

raise

this

know

they

about

questions

in advance,

not

does

to truth and values, but only

relates

because

movement

"deconstructionist"

Its partisans

the way the literary work


rather,

currents

contradictory

to find?or

since

this

is their

the work is fatally incoherent,


that it succeeds
in affirm
and that it subverts its own values: this is what it means
a

to deconstruct

text.

Unlike

the

classic

set

who

structuralist,

aside

any

to look
the truth of texts, the poststructuralist
is willing
question
at such questions,
but only to proclaim
that they will never be answered.
about

The

text

can

only

state

one

it is forever inaccessible.
literature and, especially
whose

truth,

namely

that

truth

does

not

exist

or

that

This conception
of language extends beyond
concerns
in American
universities,
disciplines
the world had never previously been in doubt.

with
relationship
even the natural sciences are described
as
So history,
and
law,
just so
their
with
rules
and
identified
with
conventions;
many
literary genres,
to
own
is
which
its
these
literature,
rules,
only supposed
obey
disciplines
have become
in their turn closed and self-sufficient
objects.
I understand
that certain lyc?e teachers are delighted
at this develop
ment:

rather

than

hesitate

before

the

unmanageable

mass

of

information

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22

NEW

about

available
to

teach

each

functions

and

HISTORY

to do

that all they have

they know

literary work,
six

Jakobson's

LITERARY

Greimas's

six

the

actants,

is

analepse

the prolepse,
and so forth. It will thus be much
easier, later on, to
make sure that their students learned their lesson well. But have we really
lead me to prefer the approach
gained by this change? Several arguments
on
of conceiving
studies
of history rather than on that
the
model
literary
and

of

that

than about
is no

there

to

seeking

physics?as

rather

inform

us

an

about

extrinsic

the arcana of the discipline

consensus,

teachers

among

literature,

object,

itself. The first argument


in the

researchers

and

is

literary

the core of the literary discipline. The


field, about what should constitute
structuralists now dominate
the schools, just as the historians
did in the
as
in
and
the
scientists
the
future.
There
will
past
might
political
always
a bit arbitrary in such a choice. Not all practitioners
of
be something
literary

are

studies

on

in agreement

the

list of

the main

"registers"?nor

on the usefulness
into their field. So this
such a concept
of introducing
an abuse of power. Besides,
the lack of symmetry is obvious:
constitutes
is
while in physics the person who does not know the law of gravitation
one
not
is
French
the
the
who
has
read
Les
in
ignorant person
ignorant,
Fleurs du mal. It is a good bet that Rousseau,
Stendhal, and Proust will be
to readers

well-known

conceptual
humility
works

long

constructs
we

when
themselves.

after

the

names

teach

our

own

We?specialists,

of

about

theories
critics,

theorists

today's

and we

will be forgotten,

works

rather

lack of
than

most

professors?are

their

and

reveal a certain

the

of

the

time only dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants.


should disappear
that the teaching of the discipline
Does this mean
of
the
of
works?
in
favor
No, but each kind of
teaching
literary
entirely
own
In
have
its
should
studies, it is right to
university
teaching
place.
teach

(also)

concepts

approaches,

used,

techniques.

Secondary

teaching,

to literary specialists but to everyone, cannot have


which is not addressed
the same object: it is literature itself that is for everyone, not literary stud
teachers
ies.We should prefer the former to the latter. Secondary-school
task: to internalize what they learned at the university
have a difficult
it, to make of it an invisible tool. The meaning
but, instead of teaching
of the work is not to be confused with the student's purely subjective
itmay
To reach the meaning,
but is based on knowledge.
understanding
a
to
of
limited
structural
the
student
have
be useful for
analysis
vocabulary
or information
from literary history. However, never should the study of
the literary work be substituted for the study of
these means for entering
to construct a
is the goal. Scaffolding may be necessary
meaning, which
once the
building but the former should not be substituted for the latter;
to
ismeant
is done, the scaffolding
disappear. The innovations
building
of

structural

remain

analysis
a means
and

from
do

previous
not
become

decades
goals

are welcome
in

as

long

themselves.

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as

they

IS LITERATURE

WHAT

We

to go

need

the means

not

not

should

end.

the

of the works
rule,

It

must

We

is not

become

study

that we consider

of the past

the

now

reader,
some

nor

the
goal,
ourselves

ask

also

nonprofessional
to master
in order

we

that

only

text's

meaning

to the strictly intrinsic approach, while literary


a context and in dialogue with it; it is not only

limit ourselves
always exist within

forget

23

further.

ifwe

badly
works
that

FOR?

the

in

of

us

make

technique
ultimate

purpose

of study. As a general

worthy

as

method

the

about

the

reads

past,
nor

reading

to

these

works
informa

gather

tion about the society in which they were created, but to find a meaning
that permits him to better understand
human beings and the world, to
The knowledge
discover
in them a beauty that enriches his existence.
in turn, is not an end in itself, but rather the royal road
of literature,
of each person. The direction
that today's
leading to the fulfillment
literary
we

studies

studied

have

taken,
next

metonymy,

we

risk of leading us to a dead end,


lead toward a love of literature.
The reductive
of
conception
classrooms

and university

newspaper

book

away from

turning
week

this horizon

("this week
runs

personification"),

to say, hardly

appears not only


it is abundantly
represented
authors

among

the

seems

to

in lyc?e
among

literature

even

and

all went

to

and, needless

courses;

reviewers

on

go

themselves.

Is

this

to school

and many studied literature in the


surprising? They
where
that
literature
is self-referential
learned
and that
university,
they
the only way to appreciate
it is to show the way its constituent
parts
interact.

authors

If today's

fit this image, however


themselves.

We

can

is so lacking

literature

receive

ourselves

in interest

whether

works
illustrate
contemporary
cultivate
construction,
ingenious
echoes
and winks
text,
symmetry,

is not

a reason

France.

formalist

view

the

reader.

to

need

such

why

of

means

mechanical
to

they

start out as critics

outside

this

the

praise,

they often

for anyone

Many
They
the

critical

it is. Besides,

pallid

ask

to

hope

literature.
to

However,

generate
this

is

view

the only one prominent


in French literature and book reviews as the
Another
trend iswhat we can call a nihilistic
twenty-first century begins.
to which people are stupid and vicious and
view of the world, according
are the main
in which destruction
and violence
truth and life is only

not

the

start

of

a disaster.

In

this

case

we

cannot

say

that

literature

does

not

describe

the world: rather than being the negation


of representation,
of negation. This fact does not keep such
literature is the representation
literature from being the object of formalist criticism. For this criticism
the world presented
in the book is self-sufficient, without relation to the
to analyze it without
outside world; so it is legitimate
asking about the

relevance of the opinions


in the book or about the truthful
expressed
ness of the depiction
that it gives. History
shows this clearly: it is easy
to go from formalism
to nihilism
and back, and one can even profess
both simultaneously.

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24

NEW

In

the

turn,

nihilist

one

has

tendency

major

LITERARY

HISTORY

and

exception,

this

con

cerns

the fragment of the world occupied


by the author himself. This
a
derives
from
and
narcissistic
attitude
that leads
practice
complacent
the author to describe
in minute
detail his slightest feelings:
the more
more
the world is repulsive,
the
the self is fascinating!
Even saying bad
is essential
is
things about yourself does not destroy the pleasure. What
to talk about yourself; what you say is secondary. We can call this third
and nihilism,
from the
upon formalism
tendency
solipsism,
following
name of that
theory that holds that the speaking subject
philosophical
is the only existing being. The implausibility
of this theory condemns
it
to

status,

marginal

creativity.

literary

not
but does
certainly,
One
of its recent
variants

it from

stop
is

something

being
called

a source

of

"autofic

to telling
the author devotes just as much
attention
tion," self-fiction:
she frees herself from any referential
about her humors but in addition
thus profiting
from the presumed
constraint,
simultaneously
indepen
of

dence

fiction

and

from

the

of

pleasure

self-promotion.

linked. They are both based on


solipsism are obviously
the idea that there is a radical break between
the self and the world,
that there is no shared world. I cannot declare
the
or, in other words,
can
world
I
first
worthless
exclude
I
unless
myself. Conversely,
totally
to devote myself solely to the description
decide
of my own experiences
rest
to
if
I
of
the
the
world
be
without
value, and, moreover,
only
judge
Nihilism

of

no

and

concern

to me.

These

two

the

human

and

material

of

visions

the nihilist leaves himself


incomplete:
of the desolate vision that he depicts;
framework

the

are

world

thus

equally

and those who resemble him out


to represent
the solipsist neglects
that

renders

his

own

existence

pos

and solipsism complement


the formalist choice more than
it:
in
in
refute
each
but
different
case,
ways, the external world,
they
the one that I have in common with others,
In
is denied or devalued.
this gesture, contemporary
French
literature is at one with the idea of
sible. Nihilism

that we find at the root of teaching

literature
limited

and

impoverished

What

and criticism:

an absurdly

conception.

Can Literature

Do?

in 1873, John Stuart Mill tells of the


In his Autobiography, published
severe depression
in his twentieth year. He was "un
that he experienced
or
one of those moods
to
excitement;
enjoyment
pleasurable
susceptible
at other times becomes
when what is pleasure
insipid or indifferent."3
All the remedies
that he tried turn out to be ineffectual
and a lengthy
to
out
He
settled
in.
continued
habitual
in a
carry
gestures
melancholy
mechanical

way, but without

feeling

anything.

This

painful

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state lasted

WHAT

IS LITERATURE

25

FOR?

A book that Mill read


little by little, it diminished.
for two years. Then,
a
moment
at
role
in
his cure: a collection
this
chance
played
special
by
What he especially found there is the expres
of poems by Wordsworth.
"In them I
sion of his own feelings, exalted in the beauty of the poems:
and imagi
seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic
....
I
native pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings
to be made
to feel that there was real, permanent
in
needed
happiness
Wordsworth
taught me this, not only without
tranquil contemplation.
a greatly increased interest in, the common
turning away from, but with
common
and
(121).
destiny of human beings"
feelings
can do a lot. It can hold out a helping hand when we are
Literature
guide us toward the other human beings around
profoundly
depressed,
the world, and help us to live. By this
us, make us better understand
I don't
because

mean

that

it reveals

it

is,

a Wellness

essentially,
to us,

it can

the world

center

for

the
each

transform

also

of

soul;

but,

us

from

the inside. Literature has a vital role to play; but for that we need to take
in Europe
literature in both the broad and strong sense that dominated
now
that
is
end
of
the
nineteenth
and
until
the
up
century
marginalized
of literature triumphs. Ordinary
while an absurdly shrunken conception
to
to look to the books they read for something
readers, who continue
are
to
the
the
and
and
the
life,
critics,
give meaning
right,
professors,
writers who say that literature only talks of itself or that it only teaches
despair

are

If the

wrong.

were

readers

ordinary

not

right,

would

reading

to disappear
be condemned
quickly.
Like philosophy
and like the humanities,
literature ismade of thought
and knowledge
about the psychic and social world in which we live. The
reality
nothing
rightly,
human

that

literature

is more
that

Dante

second.

This

is, simply?yet,
This
experience.
us at least
teaches

complex?human
or Cervantes
as

condition

and that there

to understand

aims

even

the

greatest

is no incompatibility
is true

of

of

literature

between
in

general,

at

same

the

we

is why
as much
or

sociologists

about

there

say,
the

psychologists,

the first knowledge


but

time,

can

are

also

and the
specific

as well
differences.
The thinkers of the past, those of the Enlightenment
as those of the romantic era, tried to
us
them.
Let
recall
their
identify
some
and
add
others.
suggestions
A first set of dichotomies
ligible, the particular and

sets in opposition
the sensory and the intel
the general,
the individual and the universal.
or
Whether
this is through poetic monologue
litera
through narrative,
on
ture makes us live unique experiences;
the
other
hand,
philosophy,
the richness and diversity of
concepts. The first preserves
manipulates
what is lived, the second favors abstraction, which allows the formulation
of

or

general

laws. A

less accessible

simple

quality

consequence

of

of

this

contrast

texts. Dostoyevsky's

concerns

the more

Idiot can be read and

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26

NEW

understood

countless

by

from

readers,

different

LITERARY

HISTORY

and

periods

cultures;

on the same novel or the same thematic would


commentary
philosophical
be accessible only to a minority with the habit of reading such texts. On
the other hand, for those who understand
of the
them, the propositions
the
of
have
ideas
without
philosopher
advantage
ambiguity,
presenting
of the characters of a novel or the metaphors
while the lived adventures
to many
of a poet lend themselves
interpretations.
In

an

representing
a statement,

make
more

than

she

imposes,
in an evocative

words

using

an

event,

the

reader

she makes

the

object,
incites

but

and

way

by

a movement

original

cannot

world

whose

contact.

needs?for

claim

same

the

narratives,

using

confirmation?the

By
and

examples,

will

continue

that of the other


as

prestige
assent

proposes
active.

a vibration of meaning,
it sets
our capacity to associate and

reverberations

truth and

Poets'

she

more

and

not

does

poet

one:

freer

reader

specific cases, the literary work produces


off our faculty of symbolic interpretation,
provoke

the

character,

to formulate

science

of many

after

long

interpreters

because
human

the

of the
truth

poetic
now

beings,

and

into the future. Public consensus


is the only way to legitimate
the move
"I like this work" to the statement,
from the statement
"This work tells
to state a truth
the truth." The assertive discourse
of a scientist hoping
another

possesses

be

immediately

In

this

from
true

case

not

do

The

can engage

arguments

in rational

reverie.

The

reader

tiveness

with

exactness.

At

every

to wait

have
to know

countries

of

moment,

for

the

call

instead

scientific

person

centuries
the

presented

in

society

making

or confirmed.

forth

is

is less

saying

readers
something
one

counterarguments:

in admiration

of remaining
text

to consult

and

author

it can

statement,

it will be refuted

whether

debate

is

she

to validation;

subjected

we

many
or not.

because

advantage:

likely

to

confuse

in a web

is immersed

and
seduc

of discourse

to which she must


that presents
itself to her as obvious truths, as dogmas
subscribe. These are the common places of a period, received ideas that
routines and stereotypes,
constitute
habits of thought,
public opinion,
or clich?s. Since
what we can also call "dominant
ideology," prejudice
we have thought
the Enlightenment,
that the duty of a human being
instead of settling for the ready-made
is to learn to think for herself,
her. But how to do this? In Emile,
that
she
finds surrounding
worldview
Rousseau

calls

this

of

process

apprenticeship

"negative

education"

far from
the person who aspires to autonomy
and suggests keeping
to
to imitate the opinions
of
in order
avoid any temptation
all books,
other

people

. . .Yet

we

can

follow

a different

logic:

received

wisdom,

a young mind.
especially
today, does not need books to gain control of
has already left its mark! The books that the young person
Television
takes hold of could help her set aside the "obvious truths" and free her

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IS LITERATURE

WHAT

mind.

FOR?

has

Literature

27

to

role

special

unlike

here:

play

moral,

religious,

a system of precepts
or political discourses,
and
it does not formulate
that strikes down positions
that are explicitly
thus escapes the censorship
formulated.

truths?for

Disagreeable
a better

selves?have

of

chance

being

a whole

as

humanity

in a

expressed

or

our

for

work

literary

than

or scientific work.
in a philosophical
In a recent study, Richard Rorty proposes
another way to describe
of the world.4 He
the contribution
of literature to our understanding
renounces
to describe
this
the use of terms like "truth" or "knowledge"
contribution
for

edy

and
our

that

suggests

ignorance

literature

the world

of

not

does

so much
cure

rather

but

us

provide
our

of

a rem
"egotism,"

as the illusion of self-sufficiency. Reading novels, according


to
or political works than
him, is less like reading scientific, philosophical,
other people. Making
the
it is like a very different
meeting
experience:

understood

of

acquaintance

new

characters

literary

is like

new

meeting

people,

with

that we can discover right away what they are


the important difference
like inside. We thus know every act from the point of view of the person
it. The

does

who

less

these

characters

resemble

the more

us,

broaden

they

our horizon and enrich our universe. This internal broadening


(similar
to what representational
painting brings us) cannot be stated in abstract
it. It
and that iswhy we have so much difficulty describing
propositions,
consists

of

instead

in our

inclusion

the

new

of

consciousness

ways

of

be

new acquaintances
the ones that we already had. Meeting
ing alongside
does not change the content of our mind;
instead the container
itself is
of
the
mental
rather
than
the
transformed,
apparatus
perception
things
What
perceived.
for
compassion
ity
are more
novels

novels

part

us

give

with

is not

beings
the moral

of

new

different

information
from

sphere

is not truth but


horizon of that experience
Should we describe
the new understanding
we

gain

Rorty's

by

a novel

reading

suggestive

as
or

proposal,

a correction
as

the

ourselves;

than

of

a new

but

science.

in
The

love.
of the human
to our
of

discovery

egotism,
a new

capac

this

sense,

ultimate

world

that

according
truth
of unveil

to

in terminology
truth?5 The difference
ing, a necessarily
intersubjective
does not seem to me to be the crucial matter here, provided
that we
the
link
that
is
made
and
between
the
world
literature,
accept
strong
as well
boundary,

as

literature's
as

Rorty

specific
points

out,

contribution
does

not

to
separate

abstract
the

discourse.
argumentative

The
text

text but rather from all discourse, fictive or factual,


the imaginative
that describes a human world other than that of the subject: historians,
and journalists are all on the same side ofthat boundary
ethnographers,
as the novelist. They all participate
in what Kant, in a famous chapter
to be a necessary
of the Critique ofJudgment, considered
step toward a
from

common

sense,

in other words

toward our full humanness:

"to think by

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28

NEW

in

oneself

putting

feel while

this

characters,
our

achieve

The

the

toward

tending

To

human."6

HISTORY

think

us

permits

universality,

to

and

or literary

real persons

to

calling.
one

that

other

any

of view of others,

of

way

unique

or, if one prefers,

truth of unveiling

intersubjective

world

of

position

the point

adopting

LITERARY

enters

to

thanks

encounter

the

the enlarged

a narrative

with

or

poetic

is the horizon within which


the literary text is inscribed. To be
in this sense of the term, is the only legitimate
truthful,
requirement
that we can make of it, but, as Rorty perceived,
that truth is thoroughly
text,

to

linked

our

moral

a famous

text,

exchange
were

a few months

truth,

Flaubert.
as well

affection

great

death,

they

The

as

great

the same
of 1876,
remark

several

exchanged

they tried to pinpoint

in which

con

this

literature,

Sand and Gustave

had

they

Sand's

before

letters on this subject

their

relationship

in

reread,

among

another, yet they knew that they did not have


of literature. At the end of 1875 and the beginning

conception
able

to

instructive

George

friends,

good

is

the

for one

respect
only

It

about

the one between

and morality,
two writers

education.

the nature

of

disagreement.7

think that Sand wants literature to


At a superficial reading one might
submit itself to morality, while Flaubert bases himself
solely on the rela
some of Sand's
seem to
to
true
And
is
truth.
it
that
tionship
expressions
since she appears to be essentially
take her in that direction
concerned
the

with
to

effect

bring

aim

his

I to

and

ers sadder while


that

the writers'

that

desolation

truth

to make

alone:

on

have

the

reader:

because

consolation,"

bring

she wished

was

works

them less unhappy.

"I have

to

tried

always

'You

are

he makes

his

Flaubert

going
read

replied
into

penetrate

the

had stopped there, it would be of


soul of things." If their disagreement
little interest, and we would be tempted to agree with Flaubert. Today's
reader,

after

is to dry
point

not

does

all,

the reader's

to focus

the

debate

that

believe

the

function

primary

tears. But Sand quickly went


on

two more

essential

of

literature

this starting

beyond

the writer's

topics:

place

the nature

of the truth that the writer reaches.


in his writ
that Flaubert did not show himself more
Sand regretted
a rule without
ex
in
the
made
nonintervention
but
he
had
novel
ing,
so
at
not
was
it
this:
much
his
absence
Sand
kept hammering
ception.
from the work that she blamed him for (besides, she believed
that this
in her work

absence

was

and

since

impossible,

the

thing

seen

cannot

be

from

separated

in the soul without


have a philosophy
vision)
. . .True
is
the
soul
holds the brush."
full
of
that
painting
in his replies: he knew well that he did not lack
Flaubert acquiesced
his work. He also knew that his
convictions
and that these permeated
: "One cannot

the viewer's
it appearing

concern

thing

for

is True,

truth

would

necessarily

it is good. Obscene

have

books

a moral

are only

effect.

immoral

"As

soon

because

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as

they

WHAT

lack

IS LITERATURE

truth."

FOR?

he

What

29

wanted,

was

however,

that

his

not

ideas

be

spelled

out explicitly, but that they merely be suggested by the narrative:


it was
to
to
must
"from
the
book
the
moral
lesson
that
be
the
reader
draw
up
itmust be because
the book is bad or
there." If that does not happen,
because

is a

reader

the

However,

simpleton!
criticism

real

Sand's

is elsewhere:

she

what

was

deplored

not

She
Flaubert's
absence from his work, it was his way of being present.
loved and appreciated
her friend, but she did not find the man she knew
in the man who dwells in his books. "Nourish yourself on the ideas and
... All
sentiments
stored up in your head and your heart
your life of
affection,

and

protection,

the most

principled

literature,

want

you

charming

man
to be,

not

I know

But once

What

man."

are

you

start working

you

another

why,

that

proves

goodness

simple

in the world.

she

with

blamed

him for, in short, is that he did not leave space inside his work for beings
like himself and therefore did not produce a faithful enough picture of
the world.
the

Her
The

Good.

also

humanity

requirement
is to
literature

includes

the

author

and

Whatever

do,

you

concerns

literature

human

represent
the reader.

not

Truth,

but

existence,
cannot

"You

is yourself

is still

narrative

your

of

for man

from this contemplation;

yourself
reader.

paramount
aim
of

abstract

and mankind

a conversation

is the

between

you

and him." The narrative


is enclosed within a dialogue
of which humans
are not only the object but also the protagonists.
Sand knew that Flaubert
tried most of all to be true, even if the
that
he
chose
path
passed through continual
striving for proper form,
he

because

or

in the False."
concerns

controversy

secret

harmony,

of my

not

I am

sentences,

It is not

sure

that this method

the

of

type

relation

necessary

between

"When I find a bad alliteration

That was his method:

in one

repetition

around

in a

believed

form and content.

stumbling

her; for her,

the

but

searching

I am

that

bothers

nature

the

of what

is discovered. Writers
like Flaubert
"have more
study and talent than I
do. Only what I think they are missing,
and you especially,
is a clear and
extensive view of life." The picture of life that appears in Flaubert's books
is not

he

true

is. He

more,

enough

because

is not good

nuance,

nuance

it is too monotonous.

or bad. He
which

is good

is for

me

"I want

and bad. But he


the

goal

of

art."

to

see man

as

is something
She

returned

to this in her following


letter: "True reality ismixed with the beautiful
and the ugly, the dull and the brilliant." Those writers known as realists
a choice
made
that betrays reality: they obey an arbitrary convention
that requires them to show only the somber aspect of the world. Nihilists
betray not the Good, but the True.
The

between Sand and Flaubert


is their phi
origin of this difference
of
life.
told
his
lover
who
Louise
"I
hate life"
Flaubert,
Collet,
losophy
and also "life is tolerable as long as you are not alive,"8 seemed to Sand

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30

LITERARY

NEW

to be

"a Catholic

like

he detested
life" were

tence

was

who

somewhere

else.

in the next

to be

looking

paid

life as if there were

and damned

Flaubert

as

acted

HISTORY

because

reparations"

an alternative,
if he

as if "true
a better

expected

exis

life. Without

the Augustinian
it, he adopted
admitting
doctrine
that the visible world is fallen and that men are contemptible,
while salvation awaits them in the City of God. Sand, for her part, loved
the present life a little bit more every day. "As for me, Iwant to be part of
the world until my last breath, not with the certainty or the requirement
a
that I will find elsewhere
good situation, but because my only joy is to
own
stay with my
people during the climb." This wisdom brings "happi
it is." This iswhat Sand also
of life, whatever
ness, that is, the acceptance
calls "the innocent pleasure of living for the sake of living."9
two different
is thus not between
ideals: both
Their disagreement
that

agree

literature

that

to

change
no
other

have
admit

can

Flaubert

score,

"I cannot
can

above

my

admit
only
"No matter

eyes!"

form

the

about

temperament
cannot
choose,

one

that

at

all

lies in the judgment

difference
On

aims

than

my

in

total

truth.

much

to be

freedom,

to me,

preach
turn

In her

further:

any

go

you

own."

their

Instead,

of narratives.

cannot

he

that
how

of

truthfulness

Sand

had

one

what

is.

even people with such liking for one another as Flaubert and Sand
could not easily follow the advice they received. Her advice to Flaubert
a bit futile. Nonetheless,
to
in committing
himself
seems, therefore,

And

write A Simple Heart,


see

Flaubert

'You will

told his correspondent:

instantly

influence."

your

this

By considering
differences
of

both

interpretation,
allows
Literature

literature.

and

transforms

have

direct

us

for

past,

we

can

see
a

writers

promoted
understand

to better

each of its readers

consequences

the

from

exchange

the

human

craft

for

and

despite
of
view

condition

this view would

inwardly. Accepting

the writer's

that,

similar

literary

criticism

but also for the way literature is taught today in schools. The analysis of
from some
works would no longer have as its goal illustrating concepts
linguist

or

other,

some

or

theoretician

of

other

and

literature,

to

thus

of language and discourse;


literary study
present texts as the deployment
we postulate
that
take as its aim to help us reach meaning?for
would
us
a
of
the
in
toward
turn,
human,
something
knowledge
guides
meaning,
not foreign to the world of school
important for everyone. This idea is
des Profes
In a report issued by the Association
teachers
themselves.
seurs de Lettres, we read, "The study of literature is basically the study
to himself and to the world and his relation with
of man, his relation
others."
and

national

most
works,

More

broader

literature,

important
whatever

the

exactly,
concentric

study
circles:

world

origin,

the

other

by human

stimulate

us

directs

literature

but

literature;

of all, is provided
their

of

writings
the ultimate

existence

reflection

on

of

toward
the

same

context,

itself. All
that.

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broader
author,
and

the

the great

WHAT

IS LITERATURE

31

FOR?

If one agrees that the goal of literary studies is to help us better grasp
to better understand
of works and, through this meaning,
the meaning
the "struc
the factitious opposition
between
the world and ourselves,
as does the opposition
between
the
ture" and the "history" collapses,
that helps
"methods" of literary analysis. All new information
different
us better grasp this meaning
it comes from textual
iswelcome,
whether
or

commentary

from

of

knowledge

as

of

his

is not

sources,

We

goal

in

itself

here

in

but

only

to under

have

just

of the writer's

like the study of history,

stand that the study of structure,


art

context.

the

a means

to

sense,

with

reach

richer

meaning.
must
Literature

understood

be

its broadest

aware

ness of the historically moveable


of this concept. This require
boundaries
as dogma
we
not
worn-out
take
the
of the
that
postulate
implies
to which
the destiny of poetry has nothing
in
late romantics according

ment

common

the gray background

with

of "universal reporting" produced


the true value of literature does
that "literature is the only true life"

by ordinary
language. Recognizing
not mean
that we have to believe
or that "everything
in the world exists only for the purpose of making
a book," a dogma
three quarters of humanity
from
that would exclude
"true

life."

Texts

I would

as

known

can

"non-literary"

us much;

teach

and

for my

that French classes study the letter,


part
required
Tillion wrote in Fresnes prison
that
Germaine
unfortunately
to the German military
tribunal on January 3, 1943. It is a masterpiece
of humanness
and students would
learn a lot from it.10 "They are killing
literature" (to use the title of a recent polemical work) not by studying
have happily
not fiction,

"non-literary"
tions
of formalist,
This

is

texts

in school,

a much

obviously

setting
currently
have
immediate

for

our

results

but

by making
views
solipsist
more
ambitious

and

nihilist,

students.
in

terms

The
of

careers.

mere

works
literary
of literature.
than

program

changes
Since

that
the

it

what

illustra

we

are

would

object

requires
of literature

is the human condition


itself, the person who studies it and understands
not a specialist
in literary analysis, but an expert in be
it will become,
to the understanding
human.
better
introduction
of human
What
ing
behavior and passions
than an immersion
in the works of great writers
who have been working on that task for thousands of years? And, at the
same

for the many professions


that deal
time, what better preparation
the relations among people, with the behavior of individuals and
in this way and if we orient teaching
literature
groups? If we consider
resource
be more precious
these
what
could
for the future
lines,
along
student of law or political science, the future social worker or psychothera
it not be an exceptional
pist, the future historian or sociologist? Would

with

education
professors?
practice

of

to have Shakespeare,
And is it not clear
her

profession,

would

Sophocles,
Dostoyevsky,
that the future physician,
learn

more

from

such

and Proust as
for the actual
professors

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than

32

NEW

from

exams

the mathematics

that

now

determine

LITERARY

her

HISTORY

future?

Literary

next to history
thus find its place within
studies would
the humanities,
to thought
and philosophy,
all disciplines
that bring progress
through
the

of

study

the

past,

made

past

as much

events

as much

of works

up

as by social

political
the life of individuals.
If we can agree on this aim for the teaching
no

longer

serve

simply

more

to create

as doctrines,

by

as by

shifts, by the life of peoples

of literature, which would

teachers

of

to

it is easy

literature,

the spirit of such teaching: we need to include the works of


the past in the great dialogue
the dialogue
that started
among humans,
at the dawn of time and in which each one of us, however
small our
"In
this
still
inexhaustible
communication,
part,
triumphant
participates.
over time and space, the universal
of literature is affirmed,"
significance
wrote Paul B?nichou.11 We, the adults, have the duty to pass on to future
this fragile legacy, these words that help us to live.
generations
articulate

de

Directeur
Centre

de

National

la

recherche

Recherche

honoraire

Scientifique?Paris

by John

Translated

Lyons

NOTES
and Tzvetan Todorov,
de la litt?rature (Paris: Pion,
eds., L'enseignement
Serge Doubrovsky
1971), 630.
Forme et signification
2
1965), II-III.
(Paris: J. Corti,
Jean Rousset,
cited
3
112 (hereafter
Books,
(London:
1989),
Penguin
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
in text).
1

from

4
Richard
Rorty,
"Redemption
Telos 3, no. 3 (2001): 243-63.
a distinction
5
Todorov
makes

Egotism:

James

and Proust

as

Exercises,"

Spiritual

a "truth of
or
between
{v?rit? d'ad?quation)
adequation"
referential
truth, on one hand, and a "truth of unveiling"
scientific,
{v?rit? de d?voilement) or
to the same verification
shared insight. This type of truth "does not conform
procedures;
to the people who lived during
that
instead, a scene is true, in this sense, if it is persuasive
today those who seek to know about it. This truth, in other words,
epoch and if it enlightens
and not

is intersubjective
attain." Todorov,

This

referential.

'La m?moire

devant

is the truth

l'histoire," Terrain

that novelists
2

(September

and poets
1995),

(accessed July 5, 2006).?Trans.


revues.org/document2854.html
vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard,
6
Immanuel
Kant, Oeuvres Philosophiques,
1985),
and George
Flaubert
7
Gustave
Sand, Correspondance
(Paris: Flammarion,
30.
8

Gustave

Flaubert,
Germaine

10

Flaubert,

terwhite

as Ravensbr?ck

11

B?nichou,

Paul

B?nichou

(Paris: Gallimard,
Correspondance
483.

486,
Correspondance,
Ravensbr?ck
Tillion,

(Paris:

(New York: Anchor


"Une communication

(Paris: Gallimard,

1995),

Seuil,
Books,

1988),

1981),
35-40.

to

attempt

http://terrain.
1073.
1981),

510

by Gerald

Sat

10, 255.
Translated

1975).

in?puisable,"

in M?langes

sur

l' uvre

228.

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de Paul