Larry E Norman. the Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France

By Wikstrom, Toby | The Romanic Review, May-November 2012 | Go to article overview

Larry E Norman. the Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France


Wikstrom, Toby, The Romanic Review


Larry E Norman. The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Pp. 296.

Troubling received notions is one of the goals of scholarly inquiry, and that is what the seventeenth-century specialist Larry E Norman, best known for his 1997 study The Public Mirror: Moliere and the Social Commerce of Depiction, does in his new account of France's Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns (1687-1716). Upsetting the facile yet enduring view that Greco-Roman antiquity was uncritically received in early modernity, the author demonstrates that French readers in the seventeenth century began to perceive the pagan culture of antiquity and its attendant literature as scandalously alien. Contrary to conventional thought, which associates modernity with progress, Norman shows that the Modern party in the Quarrel was composed of reactionary "presentists" with a deep prejudice against the past, whereas the Ancients were tolerant readers who accepted, and indeed were fascinated by, the strangeness of antiquity. The Ancients, the author convincingly argues, were "avant-garde" not just in their chronological pluralism but also in their unmooring of one specific mode of literature, poetry, from the rational and moral imperatives of the Moderns. By liberating poetry from reason and morality, the Ancients laid the groundwork for a whole new domain of philosophy in the eighteenth century, aesthetics, which considered the impact of art and literature on the senses of the reader independently of rational and moral considerations. Ultimately, the Ancient party's appraisal of the literature of antiquity brought about major changes in philosophy.

The book is divided into three parts, the first of which explores seventeenth-century France's unsettling awareness of antiquity's fundamental difference from the modern world. In chapter 1, the author explains that this acute consciousness developed in the seventeenth century through a more-nuanced understanding of the history of antiquity; instead of seeing the ancient world as timeless and monolithic, Moderns became aware that it was composed of different historical periods which formed a vast time span stretching a thousand years from the early Greeks to the end of the Roman Empire. From the standpoint of the seventeenth century, the new awareness of the length of history pushed what was considered the beginning of antiquity--the Homeric age--far back in time.

This chronological distancing "defamiliarized" ancient culture, especially its earliest periods. Having thus accounted for the origin of the Quarrel, Norman problematizes its defining characteristic--the seemingly total binary opposition between the Ancients and the Moderns. He does so by highlighting the common ground in their positions (i.e., the consciousness of a massive gulf between the ancient and modern worlds) and by showing how certain partisans on both sides, most notably Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Nicolas Boileau, held conflicting modern and ancient positions simultaneously. Thus, Norman argues, the Quarrel occurred not only between the two parties but also between certain individual participants, a point missed by most scholars of the dispute, who do not problematize the Ancient-Modern binary itself.

In the following chapters, Norman discusses two major points of debate between the Ancient and Modern camps--the nature of the transition from antiquity to modernity (gradual for the Ancients but sudden for the Moderns) and the question of historical progress in arts and literature: How much had they progressed since ancient times? Which literary genres were ancient or modern? The Quarrel not only engendered disagreement over historical and artistic evolution but, as the last chapter in the section indicates, also had the effect of stripping antiquity of its authority. While the Moderns embraced the authority of the present, the Ancients could no longer have recourse to that of the past.

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