Rousseau's Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France

Rousseau's Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France

Rousseau's Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France

Rousseau's Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France


Rousseau's Legacy focuses on the new and influential paradigm of the writer that emerged in the decades immediately preceding the French Revolution. Ushered in by Rousseau's combining revolutionary sociopolitical critique with a new art of autobiography, the writer would henceforth differ greatly from the traditional "man of letters." Rousseau inaugurated the idea of a heroic and committed writerly life in which the opposition between public and private selves is collapsed. This was done in the cause of creating a future political community founded on transparency. Porter, with both a wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary theory and an informed interest in cultural/historical context, gives close readings of relevant works by a number of major French writers, including Stendhal, Baudelaire, Sartre, Barthes, Duras, Althusser, and Foucault. Thus, he explores the persistent importance of the Rousseauist paradigm for French literary culture. The book goes beyond a critique or theory that interprets literary or philosophical works for their own sake, to reveal representations and self-representations of the idea of the writer in paintings, engravings, and photographs, as well as in literary texts. In concluding, Porter argues that with the collapse of faith in social and individual regeneration through revolution, the archetype of such a writer is also waning.


I am impressed at bow the occupation of writer confers on its practitioners the right to speak out for humanity as though they incarnated it.

FRANÇOIS mauriac

This book makes the claim that French literary culture is currently undergoing a major transformation that is the equivalent of a paradigm change; that the transformation is visible in the fate of a certain idea of "the writer" which first emerged almost two hundred and fifty years ago; that the change is bound up with the unprecedented historical events of the past couple of decades; and that although the transformation is particularly marked in France because of the apparent normativity of its cultural and political history since the late eighteenth century, it has important ramifications for other Western and even non-Western countries.

My interest in the emergence and eclipse of a certain idea of "the writer" goes back to 1989 and the bicentennial of the French Revolution, when I was in Paris for the summer. in spite of the widespread national consensus apparent then that late-twentieth-century France is in so many respects the democratic and republican heir of that eighteenth-century revolution, press reports and opinion pieces during the previous eighteen months had confirmed that there remained predictably wide differences of opinion concerning the meaning of the Revolution in the late twentieth century and the significance of its various phases. There was also obvious discomfort in official circles about how it should be celebrated and especially about which phases to celebrate--and not simply because France had just undergone its first experience of "cohabitation" in the life of the Fifth Republic, with a socialist president (Franqois Mitterand) and a conservative cabinet and head of government (Jacques Chirac). Moreover, if this were true of the phases of the Revolution, it was even more so with respect to its actors, from Mirabeau and Sieyès to Danton, Robespierre . . .

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