Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Prendergast on Sainte-Beuve

C. Prendergast, The classic : Sainte-Beuve and the nineteenth-century culture wars, (Oxford ; New York, 2007).

Christopher Prendergast’s exploration of Sainte-Beuve’s defense of ‘the classic’ (le classique) meanders across the whole middle of the 19th century in an attempt to provide a genuine multi-layered contextualization of its subject—in a certain sense a single essay from October of 1850, “Qu’est-ce qu’un classique?” Prendergast’s ‘provocations’ are first Marcel Proust, whose famous essay makes it difficult these days to take Sainte-Beuve’s side in anything, and Renée Welleck’s somewhat remarkable claim in his History of Criticism that Sainte-Beuve has a crucial position in not just the history of literary criticism, but intellectual history in general.

Prendergast takes a broadly thematic approach in his contextualization, with chapters on comparative philology, Goethean cosmopolitanism, Romantic historiography, mass culture, and then various issues around interpretations of antiquity and the middle ages in 19th century culture. On any of these issues, he is fascinating and informative. His pages on Renan, for instance, are genuinely useful and remarkable. The scholarship is impressive and sustained, but to my eye oddly lopsided.

On the question of Proust, Prendergast is wonderful and understated. Proust’s engagement with Sainte-Beuve [which i’m tired of writing—hereafter: SB] is not the subject of the book, but by the end, I at least, came to feel that Proust’s antipathy for the earlier critic may have been the result of proximity—that is, a factional battle rather than an inter-party one. I’ll be honest and admit to having only flipped through Contre Sainte-Beuve. But I’ve heard the arguments presented several times, and the novel I know a little bit. Proust sounds just like Sainte-Beuve! Proust condemns him for his obsession with literary mediocrity, yet one of the most attractive things about Proust’s own work is the intensity with which he observes and renders metaphysical the most mundane and ordinary objects. That is, just as SB makes the médiocre the measure of a period, so for Proust the ordinary object unlocks, or triggers, the most important parts of spiritual life. Prendergast leaves all this unsaid, but I think he must be aware of it. For instance, he comes back several times to SB’s somewhat odd references to literary works and military battles as though they were both oeuvres in the same way. The narrator of the Recherche has a very similar attitude. (As an aside, I should look in Tadié and Compagnon, to see if these passages around Doncières are pre-WWI, and if this changes).

Prendergast supplements Welleck’s assertion about the importance of Sainte-Beuve in intellectual history, but specifies that it is the intellectual history of the cultural-racist right—of Barrès and Maurras, eventually T.S. Eliot and Brassillach. The afterward is concerned with this right-wing appropriation of SB’s legacy. This has a lot to do with the politics of Latin and Latinité, which I know from working on Maurras was really important. Prendergast has contextualized it nicely in terms of the nationalistic implications of the philological work coming from Germany.

From the very first pages, though, it seemed to me that Prendergast was missing a crucial contextual element. Prendergast organizes his book around the idea of ‘the classic,’ and the 1850 essay. Most of his citations come either from the 1840s, or after—indeed, it is part of the point of the argument that SB’s doctrine of the classic was a way of dealing with the social chaos (that is, democracy) apparently unleashed of 1848. This means that not much attention is paid to SB’s early years. This is important because Sainte-Beuve was associated with a group of young liberals during the Restoration who thought very hard about the relation of literary culture to politics, and what the best political forms might be.

Prendergast refers to le Globe a few times as a Saint-Simonist journal, which it was, but only after 1830. Not only does Prendergast not take the Saint-Simonists seriously, but he completely ignores the liberal, entirely non-socialist milieu in which SB moved before 1830. My knowledge about this comes largely from the massive La jeune France libérale by Jean-Jacque Goblot (1995). These people were associated loosely with some of the doctrinaires (Guizot was an actionnaire of the journal), but were less concerned with day to day politics. They were students of Cousinaian eclecticism, and for them the spiritual basis of society was a crucial literary concern. Indeed, they practiced a remarkably modern-seeming kind of cultural-literary criticism. Sainte-Beuve was there as a young man (quite young), and not a negligible member of the group. The whole story of Sainte-Beuve’s political engagements and cultural politics looks different if it is seen in this light.

It isn’t that what Prendergast says is not compatible with this, but rather that his story would have been more interesting and coherent with it. For instance, he points out that it was important that SB as a critic was a sort of popularizer, between scientific discourses of various kinds (not least literary) and a general reading public (see pg 17, for instance). This was a major characteristic of the role of le Globe in the cultural field of the Restoration. More pointedly, Prendergast is simply at a loss when SB begins to talk about a sort of correspondence or harmony between society and literature as a mark of health (64-5). To Prendergast this kind of talk rapidly becomes meaningless. Would it remain so if put next to the ideas Guizot elaborated about liberal government as not so much a direction as an expression of society? There seem to be some real rhymes here to me, but Prendergast, for whatever reason, has not explored this context.

There are other moments when I think a more broad-minded contextualization would have been useful—and by broad-minded I mean one that escapes from lettered culture as such, into politics proper (Guizot), or into contemporary historiography on the period. For instance Judith Lyon-Caen’s book on the uses of the novel in the 1830s and 1840s would have made a fascinating comparison with all the talk SB engages in about what literature, and especially classics, are supposed to do for you. For SB (and this is not something Prendergast thematizes) it seems always to have to do with making the reader feel better, more at peace with themselves and the world. Lyon-Caen makes the strong argument that many people really did use Balzac and Sue (both of whom SB railed against) to understand the rapidly changing world around them.

Most disappointing, though, is what Prendergast looses at the end of his book by not even speculating on a liberal-doctrinaire heritage for Sainte-Beuve’s cultural politics. The last chapter is on Maurras and his ilk, if it was really the case that Sainte-Beuve carried the banner of the doctrinaires into the Second Empire then his adoption by the far right during the 1880s and 1890s would suggest the need to rethink the whole dynamic of liberal cultural politics in the 19th century.

This is all very sketchy. And I’ll say straight out that I’m not at all familiar with other scholarship on Sainte-Beuve (P seems mostly to be writing against Wolf Lepenies here). And naturally I want more context, that’s why I’m an historian. And I should say again, after the lines of objections, that the book is really quite good. I've for the most part left the central points aside here, and they're untouched by my complaints.

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