La Nouvelle Revue Francaise in the Age of Modernism

By Milne, Anna-Louise | The Romanic Review, January-March 2008 | Go to article overview

La Nouvelle Revue Francaise in the Age of Modernism


Milne, Anna-Louise, The Romanic Review


The significance of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise in twentieth-century French literary publishing has long been recognized and has given rise to an increasing number of studies. The turn to sociological approaches to literature, and particularly Pierre Bourdieu's influence in French literary history, has also heightened interest in reviews, as evidenced by the creation of the review La Revue des revues in 1986. This special issue of The Romanic Review is thus an extension across the Atlantic of what is a lively field of inquiry in France. But it is not only that, for it aims also to export, openly and self-consciously, into the French context a notion--modernism--that is, in current usage at least, tightly bound up with the English language and American cultural priorities. If "modernite" seems unthinkable without reference to the French tradition, "le modernisme" is, however, much harder to place within those parameters.

The danger in attempting to open trade lines in both directions is, of course, that the institutional force behind modernism as something akin to a literary brand is so great that it will swallow La Nouvelle Revue Francaise whole. But that prospect does not reckon with the uncertainties and reservations that eat into modernism, undercutting or countering its potentially expansive force. Propelling La Nouvelle Revue Francaise into the modernist constellation may also have the effect of restraining what has become an increasingly vacuous designation, stretched in all number of directions as critics search for ways of identifying the elusive substance of "modernism." La Nouvelle Revue Francaise poses a threat to the current ascendancy of this Anglo-American product inasmuch as any claim made now that it is a modernist review risks merely exposing the inconsequential nature of such a claim. The pairing of this volume's title does not, therefore, imply any explanatory hierarchy, and the preposition "in" asks to be understood as a passing through and out the other side. The trajectory of the one through the other tells us something about that environment or medium, while the context inflects our understanding of the review's trajectory. They interact in ways that challenge the sort of stability that would be implied by reversing the title, "Modernism in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise," which makes the NRF merely capacious; or by changing the preposition to "of," giving "The Modernism of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise," which reduces the NRF to being an exemplar of a larger phenomenon.

Of course it remains possible to protest that the concept of the modern was first and foremost a French invention. There is undoubtedly a connection to be made between "le moderne" and modernism, yet it is not clear that this connection would operate most directly via a term like "le modernisme." The complexity of this lexical map is touched upon by Fredric Jameson in his notes on a theory of modernism, which figure at the end of his major work on postmodernism "We need in fact to inflect the root adjective into three distinct substances--beyond "modernism" proper, the less familiar one of "modernity," and then of "modernization"--in order not only to grasp the dimensions of the problem, but to appreciate how differently the various academic disciplines, as well as national traditions, have framed it. "Modernism" has come only recently to France, "modernity" only recently to us, "modernization" belongs to the sociologists, Spanish has two separate words for the artistic movements ("modernismo" and "vanguardismo") etc. A comparative lexicon would be a four- or five-dimensional affair, registering the chronological appearance of these terms in the various language groups, while recording the uneven development observable between them. A comparative sociology of modernism and its cultures would alone offer an adequate framework for rethinking "modernism" today, provided it worked both sides of the street and dug its tunnel from both directions. …

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