The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

Synopsis

An act of bad taste was more than a faux pas to French philosophers of the Enlightenment. To Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and others, bad taste in the arts could be a sign of the decline of a civilization. These intellectuals, faced with the potential chaos of an expanding literary market, created seals of disapproval in order to shape the literary and cultural heritage of France in their image. In The Bad Taste of Others Jennifer Tsien examines the power of ridicule and exclusion to shape the period's aesthetics.

Tsien reveals how the philosophes consecrated themselves as the protectors of true French culture modeled on the classical, the rational, and the orderly. Their anxiety over the invasion of the Republic of Letters by hordes of hacks caused them to devise standards that justified the marginalization of worldy women, "barbarians," and plebeians. While critics avoided strict definitions of good taste, they wielded the term "bad taste" against all popular works they wished to erase from the canon of French literature, including Renaissance poetry, biblical drama, the burlesque theater of the previous century, the essays of Montaigne, and genres associated with the so-called précieuses. Tsien's study draws attention to long-disregarded works of salon culture, such as the énigmes, and offers a new perspective on the critical legacy of Voltaire. The philosophes' open disdain for the undiscerning reading public challenges the belief that the rise of aesthetics went hand in hand with Enlightenment ideas of equality and relativism.

Excerpt

Everyone expresses opinions about taste, but almost no one can define it; in fact, it may be easier to say what good taste is not than to give a formula for what it is. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas remarks about the choices made by present-day consumers, “Taste is best understood by negative judgments. the discourse of dislike and ugliness is more revealing than the discourse about aesthetic beauty.” For this reason, examples of bad taste may tell us more about a society’s conception of manners, fashion, and artistic value than any rules of good taste. in our day, many would claim that society is so fragmented that no overarching rules of taste exist. Yet museums, art galleries, magazine editors, shoppers, nightclub doormen, judges of television reality shows, and university professors make decisions based on taste every day. in many cases, these decisions determine the social status of individuals or the success of a business, or they may shape the cultural legacy of an era.

While our society is not always conscious of the influence of taste, the eighteenth-century literary world was very openly preoccupied with matters of taste or goût, if we are to judge by the frequency with which it is mentioned and by the number of works on the subject. For instance, a quick overview of works from 1700 to 1750 in the catalogue of the French National Library yields the following sample: Le Bon goût de l’éloquence chrétienne; Le Passe-temps des gens de goût; Discours sur l’origine de la poésie, sur son usage et sur le bon goût; Trois lettres sur la décadence du goût en France; Les Principes de la morale et du goût; Le Dénonciateur du mauvais goût; Les Adieux du . . .

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