The Writer's Responsibility in France: From Flaubert to Sartre (1)

Article excerpt

Based on the notion of legal responsibility, the article establishes a connection between the social conditions of production of literature and the ethical principles that founded the commitment of writers as intellectuals in France from the nineteenth century to the post-World War II period. While the penal responsibility of the author is imbued with a belief in the power of words, the trials were in turn often the occasion for writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire to define their own ethics of responsibility against the values of conventional morality and political conformity through which their work was liable to condemnation. Articulating these ethical principles affirmed the writer's independence from political and religious authorities and contributed to the emergence of an autonomous literary field, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu. The figure of the writer as a public intellectual best embodied by Zola and Sartre emerged on the basis of this code of ethics.

Keywords: authorship, censorship, responsibility, public intellectuals, French literature


As Michel Foucault observed in his famous essay, "Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur?" before discourse was a product, it was an act that could be punished. (2) The author's appropriation of discourse as his personal property is secondary to its ascription to his name through penal responsibility. In France, authorial responsibility was introduced in 1551 through royal legislation directed at controlling the book market. The Chateaubriant edict made it compulsory to print both the author's and the printer's names on any publication. The notion of responsibility is thus a fundamental aspect of the emergence of the figure of the modern writer. The state first imposed this conception of responsibility in order to control the circulation of discourses. But after writers internalized the notion, they deployed it against the state in their struggle to establish their moral right on their work and to have literary property recognized as individual property, a struggle that culminated in 1777 with a royal decree recognizing literary compositions as products of labor from which authors were entitled to derive an income. (3) This professional development reinforced the writer's social prestige and status, in Max Weber's sense. (4)

The withdrawal of the state from the control of the book market and the abjuration of censorship entailed the need for new legislation restricting the principle of freedom of speech, which had been proclaimed in Article XI of the 1789 Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du citoyen. In fact, apart from the revolutionary period, the abolition of censorship was not to be achieved before the Restoration. The Charte constitutionnelle of 1814 and the lois de Serre of 1819 opened a new liberal era for the book market. (In contrast to the press, censorship was not restored for books except during wartime. (5)) But this newfound freedom of expression was restricted on both moral and political levels. At a moment when publishing was becoming an industry, the printed word appeared in the law as one of the means of incitement to crime or, in some cases that the law specified, as a crime in itself. Article I of the law of 17 May 1819 condemns as "moral complicity" incitement to crime by several means, including writing.

Even though, according to the liberal view, writing crimes were defined as common law and not as a specific kind of crime, (6) a collective belief in the power of the written word and in the social influence of men of letters underlay the debates around those crimes. Moreover, the liberalization of the press provoked a violent reaction from Catholic and ultraconservative milieus, which culminated in book-burnings during Catholic missions. (7) Among the preferred targets of these auto-da-fes were the new editions of Voltaire and Rousseau's oeuvres. This hostility to texts rested on a belief in the role of intellectuals in bringing about the French Revolution, which derived in turn from a belief in the power of words that was shared by revolutionary and counterrevolutionary thinkers alike. …