Virtually every discussion of the new formalism, whether remonstration or encomium, mentions some variant or synonym of the word "return," which should cause us to wonder what the "new" in the "new formalism" is. Advocates of the new formalism scrutinize the language, genre, structure, and aesthetic nature of the literary text, and they encourage readers to discern textual patterns and repetitions, as well as to acknowledge the aesthetic pleasure that form can induce. Many proponents of the new formalism champion the autonomy of the work of art. Some of them have always devoted the greater portion of their critical energies to these issues; still others have joined ranks with the new formalists because they believe either that literary criticism has overstepped the bounds of its discipline, that it has become too politicized, and/or that it has simply lost use of some of the most fundamental tools at its disposal for the analysis of literary works.
Two questions arise in conjunction with the new formalism, and both are somewhat polemical. The first is whether one can make abstraction of a work's formal features. Doing that would depend not only on knowing in advance or in a manner peripheral to the work what those features are; it would also depend on a form of structural and semantic immutability, that is, on the supposition that form and meaning remain in a fixed and constant relationship. The formal features of a work, by virtue of the simple fact that we can distinguish them in the first place, express difference from and opposition to a field that is either implicitly or explicitly named in the work itself. Moreover, identifiable formal features link the work in which they appear--the work they constitute--to the histories of those features. That means that works that deploy recognizable formal or generic conventions necessarily enter into dialog with literary and cultural history by virtue of their resemblances to and differences from convention. Difference and opposition in a work of art are expressive of meaning, of something that matters. To attempt to remove meaning from difference and opposition--say, for example, to devote one's critical attention only to meter or rhyme without regard to how or why those things signify--is tantamount to arguing that red is simply better than blue.
The second question that arises when we consider the new formalism is one of ownership: what criteria determine whether a given critical camp is formalist enough, and what sorts of methodologies go too far beyond structural, generic, and textual considerations? In short, are some readers "reading too much into" the text? And are others insufficiently critical? If the new formalism is asking us to pay attention to the formal details of a text, then it is not new. If, however, the new formalism is calling for a return to a time when critics did not interrogate how or why texts mattered to people, then it is advocating an extirpation, a strategic ignoring, or even outright rejection of the critical work that has developed since the heyday of formalism. In that case, despite claims for a disinterested investment in art for art's sake, what we have is a politicized claim passing itself off as natural common sense.
I will be looking at the means by which a text's formal features encode the social circumstances surrounding the systematization of those features into convention or genre, and I will argue that any formal investigation of a work or genre necessarily invokes a set of social circumstances implicitly associated with form. To do that, I will examine an earlier new formalism, one never explicitly identified as such, but one which is nevertheless marked by a similar call for a return to traditional literary forms as well as by a politics that many tried either to refute or to obfuscate. The new formalism I will be analyzing was an aesthetic movement begun in seventeenth-century France, and it arose specifically in response to the burgeoning literary form of the novel. This earlier new formalism shares with the modern manifestation of the phenomenon attention to the formal features of the literary work, the call for a return to a more traditional aesthetics, and an ideological subtext that some either ignored or tried to deny. My principal concern will be to demonstrate that in the novel, to borrow some familiar phrasing, the formal is political. That is, the form the novel took--its particular use of prose to narrate mostly stories of love while claiming either to be true or at least plausible or ordinary--cannot be separated from the social and political conditions obtaining in the early years of the form's tremendous popularity. The form the novel assumed in the early years of its popularity marks its vexed relationship to official high culture both in its truth claims and in the specific means of achieving mimesis it adopted. To attempt to abstract the novel's form from its politics is to misunderstand the structure and function of the genre.
FORM AND FUNCTION
The new formalism emerged in the 1980s as a movement advocating the return to traditional forms of verse and meter, and it is often linked to a dissatisfaction on the part of poets and critics alike with the distressed state of contemporary poetic aesthetics and the politics associated with literary criticism. One of the early advocates of new formalism, Dana Gioia, who was named Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2002 by George W. Bush, penned his "Notes on the new formalism" in 1987, and one passage in particular is often cited by both opponents and defenders of the movement: "the real issues presented by American poetry in the 'Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative; and the denial of musical texture in the contemporary poem." (1) Gioia laments the elevation of free verse to an unquestioned poetic status quo, and he mocks critics whose condemnations of the traditional poetic forms include claims that they are "artificial, elitist, retrogressive, right-wing, and (my favorite) un-American." At the same time, however, he points out that "formal verse, like free verse, is neither bad nor good" (159). Gioia calls for formal innovation in poetry, and he advocates adopting a new formalism in order to answer the questions: "How does a poet best shape words, images, and ideas into meaning? How much compression is needed to transform versified lines--be they metrical or free--into genuine poetry?" (174).
These are fundamental questions about form: they concern embodiment, convention, tradition, and the production of meaning. As posed, especially with Gioia's allowance that free verse can be as complex and expressive as traditional meter, they constitute a dispassionate interrogation of the formation of meaning through the manipulation of language. Yet, whenever the new formalism is invoked (with or without the capital letters), a passionate polemic typically joins the question of how literary meaning is produced: can one discuss form without acknowledging the social context in which it appears? Gioia himself tries to eschew the debate, but suggests that while no one today can determine the social or cultural forces behind the new formalism, "one day cultural historians will elucidate the connections between the current revival of formal and narrative poetry with the broader shift of sensibility in the arts. The return to tonality in serious music, to representation in painting, to decorative detail and nonfunctional design in architecture will link with poetry's reaffirmation of song and story ..." (168). Language associating return, revival, and reaffirmation with traditional literary forms has contributed in part to the debate concerning politics and the new formalism, leading some critics to suggest that when adherents to the movement claim they want to divest literature of politics and rediscover literary transcendence, they are, in fact, advocating a position of political stagnation that is inherently conservative despite their claims of being outside or above politics. (2) Claiming that literary form is either apolitical or beyond politics is no worse, however (and certainly no better), than failing to consider form when investigating the social and ideological dimensions of a text. Ideology requires a material vehicle for transmission, after all, and claims about the politics of a given cultural artifact ring hollow absent rigorous investigation of form. Conversely, no discernable arrangement of signifiers tapping into the history of literary form can fail to have social significance. Reducing form and ideology to sterile and stand-alone entities mystifies their operations, masks their mutual dependence, and prevents us from achieving a full understanding of the operation of either.
Literary form expresses ideological tensions that may have no other explicit means of articulation, either because the tensions are recent and not yet expressly defined, or because the social and aesthetic circumstances giving rise to them have shifted and become opaque to the culture at large. Form conveys both literary and social meaning because like any other variety of signification, it expresses by means of difference and convention. To understand how and why that makes literary form political we first need to recognize that to be perceived as such in the first place, form must display recognizable patterns that distinguish it from the field or ground from which it emerges. Poetry typically differs from prose, for example, in its cadence, rhyme, and/or intricate arrangements of patterns, both oral and visual; varieties of poetry are distinguished among themselves through ever more subtle metric and other distinctions. But in distinguishing itself as poetry, any poem inserts itself, even if unwittingly or unwillingly, into a tradition comprised of the conventions that have come to define the various poetic genres. These conventions specify not only formal rules, but also parameters for, among other things, subject matter. Poets create formal dialog by creating meaning through difference from and opposition to the forms of signification traditionally associated with a given form. Because literary form is a product not only of difference, but also of aesthetic convention (itself a product of difference), any instantiation of a given literary form stands in dialog with the history of that form and the uses to which it has typically been put. In the case of the novel, we need to consider its two most fundamental features--it is a fictional narrative, and it is a work in prose--and consider the meaning produced when the new kind of prose narrative entered into dialog with the existing one--history.
Seventeenth-century novels resembled history formally, since both were narratives in prose, but while the latter was generally ideologically sanctioned--royal historians in service to the king produced rhetorically ornate accounts of the glorious achievements of the king and his predecessors--the former resembled the politically approved genre without necessarily subscribing to its tenets. The resemblance between history and fiction was problematic on both a formal and a political level, however, for the simple reason that, since history was typically not written in verse, it appeared to be unmarked as a literary form and consequently to have an unmitigated relationship to the way things simply were. In my earlier suggestion that to be recognized as such form needs to distinguish itself from an undifferentiated field, I used the example of poetry's difference from prose, which might appear to suggest that prose is a natural, neutral, or otherwise formless state of writing. That of course is not the case. But we need to arrive at a fuller understanding of how form signifies in order to grasp how prose--the apparently formless form--conveys meaning beyond the level of its literal signification. Wlad Godzich and Jeffrey Kittay have posited that in France prose emerged during the middle ages at a time when the jongleur--the traveling minstrel who sang poetry, epics, and other popular forms in the vernacular--began to perform to a more stratified society. As the jongleur sold his services, the truth value of his song came to be questioned; before long, the message took precedence over the performance, which had been linked to the authority of tradition and of the poetic forms used to encode it. With the disappearance of the jongleur we also find the loss of the forms--generally rhythm and rhyme--associated with his songs, and what developed is what Godzich and Kittay call "nonverse." (3) In this first appearance of literary prose, writers faced the considerable challenge of expressing their ideas exclusively through linguistic means, necessarily relinquishing, of course, all the aural and visual cues the jongleur would have used in his performance. Consequently, whereas verse correlated performance, orality, and the presence of the jongleur (including all of his extra-linguistic devices for communicating meaning), disembodied prose features punctuation, deixis, and the development of more complex narratives.
Since literary prose might appear to be little more than the loss of poetic verse form, its own seeming formlessness can have significant political consequences. The development of prose signals a loss, to be sure, but it is the loss of reference, the loss of authority or specific agency, and the loss of the oral tradition, all of which had previously gauged the truth value of literary texts previously communicated by the jongleur. Godzich and Kittay argue that prose's unique capacity to stipulate reference through deixis takes the authority that had previously existed in the form of oral tradition (which among other things can create community through the performance of the text) and replaces it with the anonymity that can only come from the literary work that effaces the traces of its own production, causing language, and not origins, to be the point of reference. In other words, while in the oral tradition the accredited jongleur brings authority to the performed text, in the written work of prose, there is no corresponding agent. Prose's deictic elements cast language itself as the reference point, and truth and authority in the form of stability appear to inhere in the text itself. Prose retains no element linking it to performance, including the bodily materiality underlying speech, and that is why it comes to be associated with the form best suited to communicate disinterested truth. As Godzich and Kittay remark, whereas prose can contain speech, the inverse is not the case. I might suggest that we can even see in prose's capacity to represent other forms of language a precursor of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called the novel's dialogism. Or, as Charles Sorel saw the matter in his Berger extravagant. "He who is capable of writing a novel is capable of anything. He can be an army general, a chancellor, a president, a lover, and a shepherd if you like, because ... he knows how to make each one of these people speak according to his qualities, and he has them behave with all necessary and appropriate decorum." (4)
We can associate the early manifestations of prose in literature with both the appearance of formlessness on the one hand and the occultation of enunciative authority on the other. Timothy Reiss has investigated the latter phenomenon, and he finds that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we observe a discursive evolution from a mode of conceptualization based on an apparent resemblance between the world and the language used to describe it to one in which the I of enunciation is occulted and discourse becomes the property of everyone and appears to correspond to common sense. (5) There is a structural corollary that I will investigate below between the I of enunciation that Reiss describes and the prose that emerges with the disappearance of the jongleur and his performance of the text. In both instances the truth value of the enunciation depends on a disembodiment, a disjuncture between a person positing something as true and a text presenting itself as disinterestedly veridical. The ostensible formlessness of prose fiction correlates the apparent lack of an interested or politically motivated enunciative agent, causing literary works in prose to acquire a sort of base-level patina of reasonableness, straightforwardness, and neutral perspective. That appearance of straightforwardness alarmed early critics of the novel, since the truths the new literary form communicated did not necessarily coincide with those that the culture officially sanctioned, and now there was no formal way to tell the difference.
The combination of putative formlessness and occulted ideological investment formed the basis for seventeenth-century France's new formalism, the movement repudiating the novel as a legitimate literary form primarily, it was repeatedly stated, on the basis of its failure to respect classical literary form. Seventeenth-century French aestheticians routinely juxtaposed the apparent formlessness of the new varieties of prose fiction to the classical literary genres whose exacting structural constraints seemed to all but dictate in advance the shape and character that more legitimate literary works could take. Among those who considered prose fiction formless we find Charles Sorel, who states simply and baldly that a novel is nothing but "une poesie en prose" (501). Pierre-Daniel Huet (1669) nuances the apparent formlessness of fiction when he links fiction to plausibility without regard to moral or political worldview when he writes that "fictions [are] about things that could have happened but did not" ( des fictions de choses qui ont pu etre et qui n'ont point ete). The anonymous author of Clorinde also apparently subscribed to the position that prose fiction lacked form and simply depicted life as it was when he wrote that many novels "imitate so well everything that ordinarily happens in life that we could say they expose a portrait of all humankind, where we each see and recognize ourselves." (6) Jean Chapelain, a member of the original Academie Francaise whose harsh condemnation of a theatrical work based on its ostensible implausibility we will see below, applied the rules of classical literature to prose fiction, and he, too, found the genre lacking in form. Chapelain focused on the formal feature known as the unity of action--the principle stipulating that a work must exhibit a single and unified deed--to differentiate prose fiction from more formally exemplary works such as tragedy and epic. Classifying the latter as a genre of "great perfection" in part because of its respect for the classical unities, he disdained the "muddled novel" (romant confus), which exemplified a "grande imperfection." Chapelain found that the novel's abjuration of the unity of action caused it to string adventure upon adventure, including "combats, loves, disasters, and other things," making it "the amusement of idiots and the horror of the knowledgeable (habiles), who cannot even bear to look at it." (7)
The novel's particular ideological power arises when its putative formlessness confronts the powers of poetic invention that had been observed as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Poetic invention was thought to provide order where the world lacked it and to instruct readers while charming them with aesthetic appeal. Francois Hedelin d'Aubignac described history as a sort of poetic raw material on which the giver of form can build: "the historian must recount simply what happened, and if he passes judgment on that he does more than he ought"; while poets "take from history what is suitable, changing the rest to make their poems." (8) Since history narrated the unadorned truth in which the evil often triumph, the imposition of form and order on the world's raw material could advance a well-ordered moral exemplum, one in which the text's language, and not its referent, simply embodies the work's moral perfection. Pierre de Deimier, for example, penned an Academie de l'art poetique in which he attempted a definition of poetry and recommendations for perfecting the poetic arts. Tracing the origins of poetry back to the speech of the gods, he follows an Aristotelian poetics by identifying poetry with quantity and quality of syllables, rhyme, and the pleasure people derive from things measured, embellished, and harmonious. But when he turns his attention to works in prose, he notes that works such as Amadis, Primaleon, and the chivalric romances of the knights of the round table "are certainly poetry, even if for two reasons they are not perfectly poetic: first, they resemble history, and second, they are not written in verse. Therefore, to characterize these novels, we could say that they are poems in the manner of history. The conclusion of this definition has it that poetry sings the passions and praises of gods and men." (9) This definition of the genre recognizes form even in its apparent absence. That is, the novel is compared to history because of the latter's implied lack of form, yet as poetry--literary invention--both give form where otherwise it would be lacking, that is, in the moral and political dimensions.
The observation that giving form to history can provide more morally suitable examples was commonplace, and many claimed that works conforming to generally accepted morality were for that very reason more believable. Du Plaisir, for example, wrote in his Sentimens sur les lettres et sur l'histoire, "I know of few rules for veritable history," and he found that fiction's use of la vray-semblance had particular moral advantages: "La vray-semblance consists in only saying what is morally believable ... The truth is not always vray-semblable, and he who writes a true history is not obliged to soften things to make them more believable." (10) Philippe Fortin de la Hoguette was even more explicit in elevating the novel above history in its capacity to deliver moral exempla: "The Novel is nothing but history written to one's liking (faite a plaisir) in which the human mind gives its imagination free reign to form a simulacrum of perfection, where human power can never go." (11) The stipulation that works adhering more closely to a favored ideological position are also more believable formed a keystone of at least one major critical condemnation of a poetic work. Jean Chapelain, who viewed the novel's stringing together of adventures as part of its grande imperfection, was one of the two authors of the Academie Francaise's first official literary judgment, a critical condemnation of Pierre Corneille's Le Cid. While Chapelain agreed with the great majority of critics on the relationship between history and poetry ("history treats things as they are," he wrote, "and poetry treats them as they should be" [x]), he also maintained that when poetry supplemented history it was absolutely essential that vraisemblance be respected. It is crucial to distinguish, however, how seventeenth-century narrative treats what could happen from what should happen. La vraisembance in Chapelain's and in most other traditional critics' use of the term specified a structural moral imperative; it designated a textual characteristic beyond plausibility, one that encompassed the moral and political perspective that happened to be most closely associated with the crown. Chapelain demonstrated the political uses of vraisemblance in his extended criticism of Le Cid, a play that debuted in 1637 to extraordinarily enthusiastic public acclaim. Corneille brought to the seventeenth-century theater-going public the aestheticized conflict between passion and duty, and he portrayed both noble and aristocratic characters torn by the tension dividing their social and amorous interests. Chapelain found Corneille's work seriously flawed, not only on the level of its verse and diction, which he criticizes extensively, but more significantly on the grounds that it was not believable. He targeted a number of the tragedy's narrative and descriptive elements for condemnation as unbelievable, including the fact that the principal female character places her love for a man over her duty to her father the king; that the Infanta considers marrying a man who has yet to prove his valor in battle; and that the king depends too much on a single individual, and thus appears beneath the dignity of the crown. (12) None of these actions is implausible (and, in fact, some of them are historically accurate), but each falls beyond the realm of what ought to occur from a royal perspective.
Prefaces to scores of novels and theatrical works repeatedly underscore the importance of literature's giving form to the amorphous reality of history in order better to please and instruct its audience. The novel, like any other literary genre, imposes form even when it appears--or even perhaps especially when it claims--to be doing nothing but imitating the world directly and formlessly. Jean Desmaretz de Saint-Sorlin argued that "fiction must not be considered a lie, but as the greatest effort of the human mind. And while truth seems directly contrary to fiction, nevertheless the two mesh marvelously together." He furthermore stipulated that "in order to persuade, fiction is necessary." (13) Huet maintained that following Aristotle, Plato, Horace, and Plutarch, we must consider "the poet to be more poet through the fictions he invents than through the verses he composes [and that] should rank novelists (les faiseurs de romans) among the ranks of the poets" (47). The seventeenth-century novel became an especially powerful literary form, both from an aesthetic and from a political point of view, because it combined poetic invention's commonly acknowledged power to impose form and hence to offer morally forceful examples with the transparently common-sensical illusion prose enjoys of offering the world up directly. The novel's apparent lack--some would even say rejection--of literary form consequently correlated its imposition of moral or ideological form. Prose fiction came to embody ambiguous or ambivalent moral and political perspectives or, more accurately, as we will now see, it materialized conflicting ideological perspectives. The gigantic pastoral and heroic novels of the 1620s through the 1660s rehearsed the French aristocracy's most cherished myths about itself as they presented in ever-lengthening narratives stories about that group's indispensability, stories of enormous appeal to a social class coming under intense economic and political pressures from an increasingly strong monarchy. In seventeenth-century prose fiction, virtue and merit were functions of birth, not of deed. Whether cast in the guise of rustic shepherds or ancient warriors, the self-evident nobility of the principal characters of pastoral and heroic fiction always shone forth despite whatever material or social circumstances might otherwise tarnish their glory. (14) Novels in the middle years of the century embodied a nexus of mutually defining formal and political tensions by displacing what constituted form from the structural to the ethical constitution of a work. At the same time, by claiming to respect history, they helped foster a formal interrogation of whether literary truth was factual or moral, in that very gesture instigating a critical examination of the politics of vraisemblance.
The seventeenth-century version of new formalism advocated a rejection of prose fiction and a return to traditional literary forms, and in most cases those advocating the return claimed to be doing so purely for aesthetic reasons. Nevertheless, there are a number of structural components of seventeenth-century fiction so intimately expressive of social and political functions that one has to expend significant energy, as contemporary authorities did, to pretend they are not ideological. The simple claim of ownership of a disinterested representation of reality--the corollary to the assertion that one is operating above our outside of politics--already situates the debate squarely in the dimension of ideology. Other, perhaps more subtle features of fiction reveal their social dimensions on closer analysis. The standout features of seventeenth-century pastoral and heroic fiction are their length, their labyrinthine and intercalated narratives, the deliberate artifice characterizing not only characters' speech, but many of the surroundings they inhabit, and the exaggerated passion and valor displayed by the principal characters. These were works written by and for an aristocracy eager to imagine itself as not only still vital to the future of their society, but as a separate race qualitatively and essentially superior to mainstream culture. Produced during a period of an increasingly absolutist monarchy, these novels showcased the birth and merit of characters who were often barely disguised versions of contemporary prominent figures. Authors typically claimed their works were true, with some favoring a factual definition of truth and others a moral one. Most often they combined some historical facts with the sorts of moral truth poetic invention lays claim to in order to produce what at least one author--Gautier de Costes de La Calprenede, author of Faramond, ou l'Histoire de la Franco--referred to as the truth "beyond the truth," that is, an ostensibly universally accepted understanding both of how the world is and of how it ought to be. (15) The conjunction of novel and history produced competing definitions of truth and different forms that truth could take, and whereas the Academie Francaise could in the first third of the century stipulate codified, ideologically informed rules for vraisemblance in classical literary forms, now writers were producing a new form in which new and different kinds of truth could take shape and even encounter one another in the same work.
In order to see how prose fiction created a form in which different, even antagonistic orders of truth inhabit the same discursive space we need to look at the principal oppositions animating those orders. A few brief but representative examples will help illustrate the social nature of some of the novel's formal features. Whether truth was considered factual or moral, the opacity of the social and the imperative to understand it made the opposition between appearances and reality a compelling arena for novelistic investigation. Pastoral and heroic fiction used the density of highly stylized language and the illusion of deliberately crafted artifice to create a disjuncture between the world and representations of it. In a description of Forez, the region inhabited by the shepherds and shepherdesses of Honore d'Urfe's L'Astree (1607-27), we read that in a great woods was a square, in which was located
the fountain of the truth of love, source of miraculous truth, for by magic the lover who gazed at himself there saw the woman he loved, and if he was in turn loved by her he saw himself beside tier. But if by chance she loved another, the other was represented there, and not him. Because the fountain laid bare lovers' deceptions, it was called the truth of love... There were also several other different grottos so well contrived to look natural that the eye often fooled one's judgment. (16)
This is a world inhabited by shepherds, shepherdesses, druids, and nymphs, and all of them speak a highly refined, richly encoded language of love that offers myriad pitfalls and possibilities for misunderstanding, mostly concerning who is in love and who is unfaithful. The Fountain of the Truth of Love stands as the guarantor of both factual and moral truth, providing the non-subjective, disinterested representation of the way things simply are, devoid of politics, perspective, and position. It furthermore blends the two orders of truth that poetry and history courted--referential and moral--by positing the possibility of an accurate and complete discursive account of an abstract state. Unfortunately, because of a curse placed on it, the fountain is guarded by fantastic beasts and is temporarily unavailable; its very existence, however, animates the action of the novel, since virtually everything the characters do is motivated by the need to interpret others' actions and words in order to discern their true motives and feelings. Thus, the Fountain of the Truth of Love stands as a sort of hermeneutical mainspring attesting to the possibility, if not the plausibility, of deciphering all of Forez's artifice to reach its reality. Strikingly, the language required to achieve the semiotic clarity that the Fountain of the Truth of Love promises is an obtrusive and highly self-conscious one marked for a specific social group.
Highly encoded language and disembodied characters also punctuate heroic fiction, which superseded pastoral novels in popularity in the 1630's and remained in vogue until the 1660's. These works featured impossibly noble people who engaged in feats of astonishing valor, often saving not just distressed people, but sometimes entire populations; frequently disguised, their nobility always shines forth because it derives from their very essence. As a corollary to that, they love not out of choice or happenstance, but primarily out of destiny. That is, their paramours are typically the only people extant who can match them in birth, merit, and valor, and so despite the shipwrecks and abductions that separate them time and again, they reunite after thousands of pages in ways that seem to suggest that nature and many civilizations both desire and require their union.
Heroic fiction is primarily about words, not action. When something finally does happen to advance the main plot in these meandering novels, what generally follows are hundreds of pages of analysis and interventions by characters often only tangentially involved. These novels are about nothing so much as inserting their properly aristocratic heroes into discursive traditions both worthy and illustrative of their characters. Here is an example of heroic destiny from Mlle de Scudery's Artamene, ou le Grand Cyrus:
I was told as soon as I opened my eyes that I had to be indefatigable and that softness was a fault; I was taught that valor was an essential and necessary quality for a Prince ... And, while listening to everything I was told, and learning everything I was taught, it seems to me that I have been authorized to achieve all that I determined to achieve.
The hero is he who assumes his legitimate place in the discursive order, effectively matching identity, deed, and the language used to express those things. If one is not destined for greatness, however, discourse, deed, and identity fail to coincide. Thus, when Artamene and his rival Artane declaim to a crowd, the results of their orations differ markedly:
Artamene had no sooner finished speaking than there arose a great clamor throughout the assembly, but with this difference: when Artane had finished speaking, only murmurs and doubts were heard; and when Artamene finished only exclamations and praise were heard, all of which seemed to be asking the gods, the kings, and the judges for victory for Artamene. (17)
It is Artamene who brings language and the world into alignment and makes the fruit of that pairing an object of desire for his countrymen.
But the harmonious coupling of language and the world that prose fiction depicted as a measure of its heroes' merit and worth had a somewhat threatening dimension on the side of the reader. Specifically, those more hostile to the new genre feared the adverse effects stories could have on bodies. Novels typically related tales of love, and in early criticisms of the genre the principal concern was that readers would waste their time on frivolous material and that they risked being led astray of the cultural truths embodied in vraisemblance. By the middle years of the seventeenth century, however, critics began to link the novel's materiality to the physical effects it could have on its real, embodied readers. When Charles Sorel enumerated the novel's formal features and their relationship to bodily components he argued, in apparent sympathy with Chapelain, that since there are so many examples of novels that string adventure upon adventure, nearly anyone can write one simply through emulation. "That is why," he writes, "Novels are as long as one likes, linking incident upon incident, like a rope that one can lengthen indefinitely by continuing to add more filament" (119). The novel's weighty materiality he describes here appears to correlate the very concrete effects works of fiction can have on real bodies. Novels, he wrote, "make youths lose so much of their time and lead them to wild passions and to libertinism" (1); they furthermore produce in their readers "immodest love, sloth, and a generalized abandonment to sensuality (voluptes)" (125-26). But Sorel focused his concerns for the young not merely on generalized bodily dispositions; going beyond sloth and desire, he furthermore speculates that novels might lead to much more specific bodily practices: novels "have secret lures against which young women cannot protect themselves, and we fear that they will put into practice what they read about in novels" (154).
Fear that people might be corrupted by what they read is not of course unique to seventeenth-century prose fiction, but what does appear highly idiosyncratic is the extent to which language and bodies seem able to intersect in novels. That is, fiction creates a form of language that not only animates its characters; it unites their discursive and ontological forms, in the process amalgamating the order of language and the order of reality. While this is not the place to discuss the Cartesian two-substance model in which thinking and material things occupy radically irreconcilable domains, I would point out that at this time philosophers of language were beginning to notice the lack of any necessary connection between a signifier and what it signifies. Language had both an abstract and a corporeal dimension, just like the human being of whom it was the soul province. (18) In the domain of fiction, Sorel links novels' materiality both to the kind of inappropriate physical interaction they might encourage in their readers and to the particular mechanics and problems of their representational strategies: "people have often complained that most novels are so thick and have so many volumes that we have often seen books of the Universal History of the World that are much smaller than novels" (157). He then wonders: "when one has written the best possible novel and the one most conforming to the rules, what would it be except a thing that resembled History and which nevertheless is not History? Must we esteem the imitation as much as the thing itself?" (163). When considered alongside his concern that young readers will do with their bodies what they read about in novels, Sorel's concerns about fiction's materiality and its relationship to history becomes: can novels, in their dense materiality, effect readers in their own physicalities, and can they come to stand in for the reality of history?
Sorel was certainly not alone in bringing the abstract and material domains together and in wondering what their possible intersection might bring about. Huet linked novels' focus on love to the formal features--they are fiction in prose, and they offer alternatives to official truths--that both distinguish them and make them politically problematic. Novels, he writes, are "invented stories of amorous adventures, written with art and in prose for the pleasure and instruction of readers" (46-47). As if to underscore the novel's relationship both to literary form and to corporeal identity, Huet compares the unity of action to a well proportioned body:
If it is true ... that the novel ought to resemble a perfect body and be composed of several different and well proportioned parts organized under a single head, it follows that the principal action, which is like the head of a novel, must be unique and illustrious compared to the others, and that the subordinate actions, which are like the body parts, must relate to the head, yield to it in beauty and dignity, complement it, sustain it, and obediently accompany it. Otherwise, this would be a multi-headed body, monstrous and deformed. (87)
It is not self-evident that the head is the most beautiful part of a body, or that the other body parts "accompany" the head, as if they are somehow incidental, and not integral to that body--that is, comprising it and making it the body that it is. But just as Sorel forged a rapprochement of abstract expression and material world, Huet brings together the thinking and the material things--here, the head and the body parts that support it--that are the irreconcilable components of Cartesian philosophy. The novel at its best--that is, when it respects the unity of action--embodies the thinking and material domains. The concern that novels would not only infect the minds of the young but produce a real effect on their bodies combines with the fear that novels would promulgate aberrant truths that were impossible to formally distinguish from official ones. That combination was especially troubling because the question of literature's power to affect people was no longer an abstract one. Here was evidence that the form of truth was up for grabs, and the consequence of grabbing it could be profound. Furthermore, in its imitation of the literary form--history--whose privilege it had traditionally been to appear to represent the world directly, the novel invited comparison between abstract imitation and material practice, thus posing a question that was up until this time unthinkable: is the world that language invents different from the one outside the page? Or, phrased another way, is language of the same material form as the world that it would describe?
These brief examples of the interplay between language and the world in seventeenth-century fiction illustrate that these novels are characterized by discursive traditions that do two conflicting things: on the one hand, they align representation and the discursive order with the way things ought to be. That is, they seem to be concerned more with bringing the world in line with a given discursive order and understanding than they are with achieving an adequate or even plausible representation of reality. On the other hand, they establish a rich rhetorical density, perhaps best highlighted in the deliberate artifice characterizing both settings and descriptions of events found in intercalated narratives, which makes their material available only to those who know its flourishes. In other words, the works highlight their own deliberate opacity as well as their availability only to those who know how to read them, and in their imposition of a discursive order on the world, one that corresponds more or less uniquely to a particular class-based worldview, they produce a formal and ideological paradox: on the one hand, prose fiction from the middle years of the seventeenth century puts itself forth as the "truth beyond the truth"--that is, the self-evident moral and ethical vraisemblance that surpasses the factual depiction of the world order in all its detail; and on the other hand, despite the novel's formal resemblance to history and consequently to an ostensibly formless imitation of reality, it mimics the world order through the vehicle of a complex language that is so stylized that one has to learn it in order to access it. Prose fiction thus drove home the possibly troubling point that if it requires a particular upbringing and education to recognize a plausible depiction of the world, then perhaps all such depictions require training to understand, regardless of how natural we are told they are.
Prose fiction's relationship to the two cornerstones of its structural composition--its appearance of formlessness, and the political ramifications of an ostensibly non-partisan representation of the world--pitted two forms of mimesis against one another. The first, epitomized in Chapelain's comments cited above, relates the text to the world's moral order, such that the literary work both illustrates and justifies the way of the world, and, as the settings in L'Astree or discursive traditions in Cyrus show, all components interrelate and express one another in a discourse of resemblance in which the parts signify the whole. This is a mimetic model based on patterning and resemblance of the sort that Reiss and Michel Foucault have theorized. (19) The second form of mimesis, by far the more modern, is the effect of an adequation, but not an identity, between text and world. This latter form of mimesis develops by establishing conventions and causing readers to forge similarities, a complex process in which what must be negotiated for each and every reader are not the natures of the similarities themselves, but the means through and by which resemblance will be determined. In other words, resemblance does not inhere in things; it is, rather, determined by perceiving subjects. Consequently, resemblance only arises when subjects determine the grounds on which it can occur. That means that a text and a world are judged similar when readers establish the common denominator through which to correlate them, the criteria according to which two unlike things--text, world--can appear to be equivalent. When readers make a rapprochement between text and world they implicitly establish the grounds according to which the judgment of resemblance will be made. As the Academie Francaise's criticism of Le Cid showed, choosing what corresponds between text and world involves selecting among other things what is ideologically plausible. Since the grounds for resemblance do not pre-exist the text but are instead produced on the fly, that means mimesis is dynamically produced, and that what appears realistic will depend on history, on culture, and on the tensions animating different social groups.
I would like to suggest, then, that prose fiction embodies and expresses the coexistence of the multiple and competing versions of truth that seventeenth-century culture was beginning to experience. The form of the novel facilitated that expression because in its apparent formlessness and the relationship to disembodied self-referential authority that prose had traditionally enjoyed, it simultaneously caused the ideologically invested worldviews of the aristocracy to appear natural and uncontrived, even while it demonstrated that correspondence models of truth--that is, referential or factual ones--were based on convention and consequently politically malleable. In short, what we find in seventeenth-century fiction is that correspondence models of truth were competing with moral or political models of truth.
Seventeenth-century new formalism called for a return to traditional literary form and, like the new formalism of today, it claimed to do so not in the interest of politics, but in that of art. I have been investigating the manner in which formal and political considerations cannot be disarticulated in complex literary structures, and it might be appropriate, by way of concluding, to return to Dana Gioia's challenge to poets and literary critics to answer the question, "How does a poet best shape words, images, and ideas into meaning?" We have seen numerous examples of how words and ideas have been shaped in seventeenth-century novels, either through the machinations of densely encoded deliberate artifice, the disappearance of the embodied jongleur and the attendant shift in enunciative authority, or the juxtaposition of different forms of mimesis. Yet, in order to determine how those shapes turn into meaning, we must ascertain how the shaping of words and ideas matter to people. I have proposed that we consider, in investigating the form of prose fiction and the apparent formlessness that is its hallmark, how different claims to truth can compete with one another on the one hand, and how they can come to have real, embodied effects on people on the other. The particular configurations of prose that came to signify a transparent, non-partisan representation of the world that we call the novel was a literary form, to be sure, but it was also in and of itself a form of politics. Few literary forms have so resolutely pitted competing models of truth in a single structure by way of illustrating the constructed nature of truth on the one hand and its strange transparence on the other. Any new formalism, it seems to me, must account not only for the play of differences among the component parts of the literary features it isolates, but the structures, conventions, and historical roots through which those forms actually make a difference to people and the way they live their lives. While Gioia lamented our contemporary "inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative," our forebears in the seventeenth century, in opposition to the reigning new formalism of the time, managed to create a literary form that did exactly that.
University of Rochester
(1) Dana Gioia, "Notes on the new formalism," Expansive Poetry, ed. Frederick Feirstein (Santa Cruz: Story Line Press, 1989), 174-75; subsequent citations appear parenthetically.
(2) See, for example, Carolyn Portel, "History and Literature: 'After the New Historicism.'" New Literary' History, (21) 1990: 253-72, who writes that "it is rather disheartening to note that the formalist agenda, as well as the politics of containment it represents, have remained hegemonic at least as an institutional framework for graduate training in literature" (255-56).
(3) Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich, The Emergence of Prose (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1988).
(4) Charles Sorel, Le Berger extravagant (1627; Geneva: Slatkine, 1972), 405; subsequent citations appear parenthetically. All translations from the French are my own.
(5) Readers are referred to Timothy J. Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Cornell U. Press, 1982). One passage in particular that encapsulates a significant portion of his argument concerning the discourse of patterning and resemblance occurs in the chapter on "Medieval Discursive Practice": "The relationship here is not one of analogy, but of identity. The discursive functioning of sociopolitical relations is the same as that of logico-epistemological ones (which is why to take humanity as a 'test case' for a logical relationship has such profound implications). The corporate social relation between the Divinity and societal participant, mediated by the law (anima), and that participant and society as a whole, mediated by baptism, is the same as the relation that holds between the Divinity and the sign, guaranteed by the sould (anima), and the sign and society guaranteed by concrete discursive practice" (86).
(6) Pierre-Daniel Huet, Lettre-traite sur l'origine des romans , ed. Fabienne Gegou (Paris: Nizet, 1971), 50; subsequent references are parenthetic. Clorinde (Paris, 1654), in the un-paginated preface entitled "A Lysis."
(7) Jean Chapelain, Lettre on discours de Monsieur Chapelain it Monsieur Favereau, Conseiller du Roi en sa cour des aides portant son opinion sur le poeme d'Adonis du Chevalier Marino (Paris, 1623), vi, x; subsequent references are parenthetic.
(8) Francois Hedelin, abbe d'Aubignac, La Pratique du theatre (1657; Algiers: J. Carbonel, 1927), 68.
(9) Pierre de Deimier, L'Academie de l'art poetique (Paris, 1610), 10.
(10) Du Plaisir, Sentimens sur les lettres et sur l'histoire (Paris, 1683), 86, 96. Because the word vraisemblance (including its alternative seventeenth-century spellings) has particular ideological associations that I will explore throughout this essay, I will continue to use it in lieu of "verisimilitude" or other similar words lacking this social dimension.
(11) Quoted in Mark Bannister, "'Imagination et jugement': History and the Novel in Mid-Seventeenth-Century France," Seventeenth-Century French Studies 13 (1991): 24.
(12) See Les Sentimens de L'Academie Francoise sur la tragicomedie du Cid (Paris: Picard et fils, 1912), especially 38-61. See also chap. 2 of my Dangerous Truths and Criminal Passions (Stanford U. Press, 1992), for a more lengthy discussion of vraisemblance.
(13) From the un-paginated preface to Jean Desmaretz de Saint-Sorlin, Rosane histoire tiree de celles des Romains et des Perses (Paris, 1639).
(14) Among the classic studies on the characters, iconography, and ideology of pastoral and heroic fiction are Erica Harth, Ideology and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France (Cornell U. Press, 1983); Mark Bannister, Privileged Mortals: The French Heroic Novel, 1630-1660 (Oxford U. Press, 1983); Madeleine Bertaud, L'Astree et Polexandre: Du roman pastoral au roman heroique (Geneva: Droz, 1986); Maurice Level, Le Roman francais au XVIIe siecle (Paris: PUF, 1981).
(15) Gautier de Costes de La Calprenede, Faramond, ou l'histoire de France (Paris, 1669), iii.
(16) Honore d'Urfe, L'Astree, 4 vols. (Geneva: Slatkine, 1966), 1:37.
(17) Madeleine de Scudery, Artamene, ou le Grand Cyrus, 10 vols. (Paris, 1656), 1:152, 288.
(18) Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, Grammaire generale et raisonnee, contenant les fondemens de l'art de parler expliquez d'une maniere claire et naturelle ... et plusieurs remarques nouvelles sur la langue francoise (Paris, 1660), identifies "a material component of speech, what is shared in common, at least on the level of sound, between men and parrots" and "the spiritual component of speech, which comprises one of the greatest advantages of man over all the other animals, and which is one of the greatest proofs of his reason" (26-27).
(19) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1973), and The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972). More recently, Lucie Desjardins, Le Corps parlant (Quebec: Presses de l'Universite Laval, 2000), has examined the relationship between bodies and representation in seventeenth-century France, noting in particular the role of resemblance as Foucault theorized it.…