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What is Literature for?

Antoine Compagnon

What is Literature for?

Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 30 November 2006

Antoine Compagnon
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Dear Mr Administrator,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

2Speaking here for the first time, I feel confused, for it seems like yesterday that I entered the gates of this institution – to meet giants. I had just started at a neighbouring school; it was around 1970, I was twenty, and Paris was a celebration of the intellect. A friend’s mother advised me to visit the Collège de France. I came here and consulted the programme, as astounded as the narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) looking at the Morris column announcing that Berma was to appear in Phèdre. And then one morning, not without apprehension, I entered a lecture room, up there, I can’t remember where exactly because everything’s been changed since then. I kept to the back and there I listened to a small man man who looked like a bird. He was explaining a Du Bellay sonnet, admirably and in great detail, as I had never heard anyone do nor imagined it possible to do. I learned the name of this man who had been invited by Claude Lévi-Strauss: it was Roman Jakobson, the great linguist and poetics scholar who had traversed the twentieth century, from Moscow to Prague, then New York to Harvard.

3Unlike the narrator after Phèdre, that first time did not leave me disappointed. Have I ever got over that first visit? Does one not become a professor when one has been unable to leave school? I had found the road to the Collège, and led me all the way here. Although I was studying engineering, I attended other lectures within these walls: that of Michel Foucault, the year he gave “Surveiller et punir” (Watching and Punishing), that of Roland Barthes, whose seminar I had attended in the meantime at the Hautes Études. A colleague has reminded me that together, at Claude Lévi-Strauss’ seminar, we had heard Julia Kristeva, who subsequently supervised my PhD. The Collège de France thus precipitated my late conversion from science to literature.

  • 1 Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Lettre à M. de Tissandier, 23 mars 1628, Œuvres complètes, 1665, t. I, p (...)

4Guez de Balzac warned against the opposite conversion: “Leaving eloquence for mathematics”, he commented in 1628, “means being tired of an eighteen-year-old mistress and falling in love with an old woman”1. Old, mathematics? Balzac was wrong, but for me literature has remained an “eighteen-year-old mistress”. Moreover, one of my professors was also wrong when he warned me against taking that step: “Wouldn’t it be better to remain a humanist engineer?”

5Forgive me for mentioning these old memories; they explain the doubt that I am experiencing here before you. You cannot imagine all that is lacking in my literary training, everything that I have not read and that I do not know since, in the discipline in which you have elected me, I am virtually an autodidact. I have nonetheless been teaching literature for over thirty years and have made it my profession. As I will carry on doing here, I have always taught what I did not know, and taken my lectures as a pretext to read what I had not yet read, and thus to learn what I did not know.

6Unsure as to whether you would agree to my project of a Chair, and my candidature, I would ask myself: “Will they not see their mistake?” Then I would stop myself by thinking that in fact a real impostor would be a professor who was sure of himself, who knew before seeking. Yet the names of those who have brought fame to modern French literature at the Collège de France for over half a century come to mind, from Paul Valéry to Roland Barthes, from Jean Pommier to Georges Blin, and then those of the eminent professors, present here today, who accepted me in their midst, Marc Fumaroli and Yves Bonnefoy, as well as the members of the Institut d’Études Littéraires who introduced me to you, Carlo Ossola and Michel Zink, to whom I am grateful.

  • 2 Baudelaire, Lettre à Narcisse Ancelle, 18 février 1866, Correspondance, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collec (...)

7To put my mind at rest I recalled Émile Deschanel, Baudelaire’s schoolmate at Louis-le-Grand and father of Paul Deschanel, President of the Republic for a short while. In 1901 – he was 82 years old –, a Russian student attempted to assassinate him at the end of his lecture at the Collège de France and seriously wounded a friend of hers whom she accused of having abandoned her for her professor. “That silly little Deschanel! That professor for young ladies!”, Baudelaire wrote with premonition in 1866, “that perfect representative of petty literature, that little vulgarizer of vulgar things”2. And yet Deschanel wrote a study on “Sappho and the Lesbiens” which was published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1874 at the very same time that Baudelaire gave the shocking title of Les Lesbiennes (The Lesbians) to the collection of poems he was later to rename Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil).

8Mr Administrator, dear colleagues, I feel very small before the task that lies before me, after these admirable masters, and it is with humility that I thank you for the honour that you have bestowed upon me and the trust that you have put in me by welcoming me amongst you.


9Ladies and Gentlemen,

10Why talk about modern and contemporary French literature in the twentieth century, and how? These are the two questions I would like to ponder with you today. “Why?” is a more difficult question to deal with. I shall therefore first try to answer the question of “how?”

  • 3 Sainte-Beuve, “Pensées de Pascal” (1844), Portraits contemporains, M. Lévy, New Edition, 1871, vol. (...)

11Two traditions of literary study have alternated since the nineteenth century, in France and in this institution as well. Sainte-Beuve already distinguished “different ways, different very marked periods in literary critique”. He pointed out that at the end of the eighteenth century, “in literary works [...], [one] look[ed] only for examples of taste and explanations corroborating the established classical theories”. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, one “began [...] to contest the theories that had prevailed until then” and one related these masterpieces, their beauty as well as their flaws, “to the circumstances of the time, to the context of their society”. He insightfully noted the change: “criticism, while keeping its theoretical goal and its idea, becomes [...] historical; it investigates and takes into account the circumstances from which the literary works have sprung”3. Theory and history: these were Sainte-Beuve’s terms to refer to the two “ways” of doing literary criticism, the old and the new, and these are two of the additional subtitles that I wanted to give to this Chair: “Modern and contemporary French literature: history, criticism, theory”.

12The theoretical tradition considers literature as one and the same, an immediate presence, an eternal and universal value. The historical tradition, on the other hand, envisages the literary work as an other set in the distance of its time and of its place. In terms of “today” or “yesterday”, we will speak of synchrony (i.e. considering works from the past as if they were contemporary) and of diachrony (i.e. considering – or attempting to consider – works from the point of view of the public for which they were intended). A similar opposition is that of rhetoric or poetics, on the one hand, and of literary history or philology, on the other. While rhetoric and poetics study literature as a whole, in order to derive from it rules or even laws (e.g. imitation, genres, figures), literary history and philology study what literary works have that is unique and remarkable, irreducible and circumstantial (a text, an author), or serial at most (a movement, a school), and explain them by their context.

13Nothing summarizes the adventures of literary studies in this country better than the succession of Chairs of French literature at the Collège de France. The first ones, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were occupied by the “classics”, the Ancients, not the Moderns, as they were called during the famous Quarrel: Abbé Jean-Louis Aubert (1773-1784), Abbé Antoine de Cournand (1784-1814), and François Andrieux (1814-1833). All three were poets. Aubert was a fabulist, Cournand a translator, and Andrieux a playwright. Supporters of rhetoric and authors of the poetic arts, they seem to have been insensitive to contemporary preromanticism, as well as to the idea of the historical and geographical relativity of beauty.

14During the first third of the nineteenth century, however, the new discipline of philology – the history of a language and the critique of texts – began to be applied to modern literature, that is, the literature of the Renaissance and of the classical age. After the classics came the historians of literature, starting with Jean-Jacques Ampère (1833-1864), son of the great physicist from Lyons, escort of Mme Récamier, and friend of Chateaubriand and Tocqueville. The Chair of Modern French – next to which a Chair of “Medieval French Language and Literature” was created in 1853 for Paulin Paris – was then held by Louis de Loménie (1864-1878), the author of the Galerie des contemporains illustres par un homme de rien (1840-1847), and editor of Beaumarchais, of Paul Albert (1878-1881), and Émile Deschanel (1881-1904), which we mentioned above, the author of Romantisme des classiques (1883-1886).

15All four were historians of literature, however, not in the same sense. The first two, Ampère and Loménie, were something still of the amateur and the erudite antiquarian, whereas their successors, Albert and Deschanel, two graduates of the École normale supérieure, and therefore the first professionals, were highly skilled lecturers.

16After the neo-classical poets, from the end of the Ancien Régime to the Bourbon Restoration, the learned socialites of the July Monarchy and the Second Empire, and the worldly academics of the Third Republic, it was only with Abel Lefranc, a graduate of the École nationale des Chartes and a historian of the Collège de France, and the geographer of the picrocholine war, that literary history, in the positivist sense, entered this institution. He was elected into it in 1904, in a tense political climate, against an illustrious but anti-Dreyfus speaker and a Catholic convert, Ferdinand Brunetière, director of the Revue des Deux Mondes magazine. He held the Chair for longer than anyone else, until 1936.

  • 4 Valéry, Cahiers (1921), Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1974, vol. 2, p. 1187.

17However, from 1937, with Valéry – a poet, like the first occupants of the Chair – under the title of “Poetics”, the teaching of literature at the Collège de France resumed its resistance to history. Valéry had little regard for literary historians: “these gentlemen serve no purpose, they say nothing. They are prolix mutes. They have no clue about the matter. The problem itself is unfamiliar to them. And all they do is try to work out the captain’s age”4. The pendulum swung back, however, and his successor in 1946, Jean Pommier, was another historian, even though, in homage to Valéry, he wished to combine poetics and philology in the title of his Chair: “History of Literary Creations in France”.

  • 5 Georges Blin, La Cribleuse de blé, José Corti, 1968, p. 29.

18The alternation between philology and poetics was thus the rule for a long time. Literary history was criticized for being nothing more than a sociology of the institution that was closed to the value of the literary work and of the genius of creation: “Biography, moralities, influences [...] are the means of dissimulation given to critique in order to mask its ignorance of the objective and of the subject matter”, Valéry would say with disapproval. Formalism was accused of limiting the text to an abstract and autonomous game, to “an anonymous or geometrical solution of the probabilities of language”, as Georges Blin once said in this very place5. For it was Blin who had the task of reconciling the best of the two traditions. With him, literary study acquired the ambition to rejoin the “disciplinary knowledge of the literary works in the community of a time and under the privilege of a destiny”, according to the ecumenical definition he gave of it in his inaugural lecture of the chair of “Modern French Literature” in 1966.

19At the end of the twentieth century, the longstanding quarrel between history and theory, or between philology and rhetoric – a late variant of the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns – finally had no more raison d’être. Roland Barthes, who had for a long time distrusted emotions and value, came back to them in his lectures at the Collège de France and in his later books. Then Marc Fumaroli, through the history of rhetoric, superbly reconciled the two great consubstantial traditions of literary study.

20Without underestimating the age-old tension between creation and history, text and context, or authors and readers, I will in turn propose here to bring them together, as this is indispensable to the well-being of literary study. Perhaps because I came to it innocently, in a roundabout way, I have always resisted these imposed dilemmas and refused mutual exclusions that seemed fatal to my contemporaries. Literary study must and can mend the rift between form and meaning, the artificial enmity between poetics and the humanities.

21Theory and history will thus be my “ways”, but no longer in the sense that Saint-Beuve conceived of them, that is, as two ages of critique, the classical and the romantic, or the universalist and the relativist. Theory will mean neither doctrine nor system, but attention to the elementary notions of the discipline, the elucidation of the prejudices of all research, or even methodological perplexity; and history will mean less a chronology or a table of literature than a concern for context, a concern for the other, and thus ethical consideration.

  • 6 Sainte-Beuve, “Pensées”, Portraits littéraires, Garnier, New Edition, 1864, vol. 3, p. 549.

22As for the words “modern and contemporary literature” in the title of my Chair, they do indeed prescribe temporal and periodical milestones – from the Renaissance to the 20th century, or from Montaigne to Proust –, but they particularly point out the challenge that has for a long time motivated my work: to resolve the contradiction which forever links and repels literature and modernity, like the embrace of the accursed lovers in Baudelaire’s sonnet “Duellum”. For I would like my teaching to be fully relevant to the literary situation of both past and present. Theory and history will be its ways, but criticism – which is to say judgment or evaluation – will be its raison d’être. Albert Thibaudet evokes somewhere the wonderful double spiral staircase at the Château de Chambord to illustrate the complicity of literary history and literary criticism: history, which relates the text to its origins, and criticism, which brings it towards us. Here, we will need to imagine a triple helix, for the three threads of theory, history and criticism remain essential for tying up literary study, or renewing the link with it, in the fullness of its meaning. I believe that, after the time of theory and that of history, the time of criticism has come, just as when Sainte-Beuve – if I may be so bold as to make the connection – announced at the end of the Portrait littéraires (Literary Portraits): “When it comes to criticism, I have played the lawyer long enough. Let me now play the judge”6.


  • 7 Italo Calvino, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (1988); English translatio (...)

23The marriage between literature and modernity, I was saying, has never ceased to be a battlefield. This observation takes me back to the first and real question that I wanted to discuss with you today: why talk about – why continue to talk about – “Modern and Contemporary French Literature” in this the beginning of the twenty first century? What values can literature create and hand down in today’s world? What should its place be in the public sphere? Do we benefit from it in life? Why defend its presence at school? It seems to me urgent to openly consider the uses and the power of literature. In his American Lectures. Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which he wrote shortly before his death, Italo Calvino wrote: “My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it”7. Can I reuse for my own purposes this credo as I inaugurate my course? Are there really still things that only literature can provide us with? Is literature indispensable, or is it replaceable?

  • 8 Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1987-1989, 4 vol., vol. 4, (...)

24The landscape has profoundly changed in the past twenty years. Calvino still spoke like Proust in Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained): “Real life, life finally discovered and explained, the only life that is consequently really lived, is literature”8. Proust considered that self-realization did not come about through worldly living, but through literature, not only for the writer who dedicates himself to it entirely, but also for the reader, who is moved by it while he reads: “Through art alone”, Proust continued, “can we get out of ourselves and know what another sees of this universe that is not the same as ours and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown to us as those that may be found on the moon.” In Calvino’s eyes, the supremacy of literature was unquestionable. That is why, from today’s point of view, it appears that there was less distance between him and Proust, or between Roland Barthes and Gide, or between Michel Foucault and surrealism, than between ourselves and Barthes, Foucault or Calvino, between ourselves and the last vanguards who kept the requirements for difficult literature very high and believed in it as though it were absolute.

25For the presence of literature has diminished in our society in the last generation: at school, where documentary texts have encroached upon it, or even superseded it; in the press, where the literary pages are dwindling, and which is itself undergoing a possibly fatal crisis; during leisure time, where the gathering pace of digital technology is fragmenting the time available for books. And so it is to the point where the transition is no longer ensured between children’s literature – which is doing rather well, with an offer that is more attractive than before – and adolescent literature, which is considered boring, because reading requires long moments of solitude and stillness. When secondary school pupils are asked which book they like the least, they answer Madame Bovary, the only book they have been made to read.

26From a scholarly point of view, from the beginning of the nineteenth century philology posited the existence of a constituent unity of a language, a literature and a culture – or rather a civilization, they would say at the time –, an organic whole that was identified with the spirit of a nation, and of which literature, between the linguistic roots and the cultural foliage, furnished the noble trunk. Hence, the prolonged eminence of literary studies, the royal way towards understanding a culture as a whole. Yet the philological model was shaken at the end of the 20th century. This was because, on the one hand, other cultural representations, such as fixed and mobile images, found a place beside literature and were no longer deemed to be less receivable; and on the other hand, because the association between culture and nation was no longer perceived in as narrow or determinant terms.

27Literature itself – what we call “living literature” – sometimes seems to doubt its own legitimacy when faced with rival discourses and with new technology, not only the exact and social sciences – an old quarrel – but also audiovisual and digital technologies. Since modernity, literature has entered the “age of suspicion”. But for a long time this period, no doubt as an after-effect, was one of prodigious fecundity and of an extraordinary cult of literature. Nowadays, even though every autumn sees the publication of hundreds of first novels, one gets the feeling that there is a growing indifference to literature, or even – a more interesting reaction, because more passionate – a hatred of literature, which is considered to be intimidating and a factor of “social fracture”. Is literature not the language of allusion? To hear it, one must “be of it”, as they would say at Mme Verdurin’s. Allusion is thus exclusion.

28Reading must henceforth be justified, not only everyday reading, that of the reader, of the honnête homme, but also scholarly reading, that of the scholar, of the professional man or woman. The university is going through a moment of hesitation concerning the virtues of general education, which is accused of leading to unemployment and which competes with vocational training, the latter being said to prepare people better for employment. As a result, the introduction to literary language and to humanist culture, which is less profitable in the short term, appears vulnerable in tomorrow’s school and society.

29The weakening of literary culture is therefore not an impossible future prospect. That is why, after the traditional question that has been asked since Lamartine, Charles du Bos, and Sartre, “What is literature?” – a theoretical or historical question – the critical and political question must more seriously be asked: “What can literature do?” In other words: “What is literature for?” And never mind if, when one takes the risk of answering it, one appears naive or old-fashioned after years of theoretical dispute on literariness, that is, the quality of the form which establishes literature in terms of literature, rather than on the cognitive, ethical or public function of literature – for to avoid answering it would be irresponsible when a “Farewell to literature” is published every season.

30(At this point, I cannot stop myself from thinking of those whom this room has not welcomed and who are listening to me in front of a screen, or of those who have left for want of space. Your numbers seem to contradict my words, and this is an opportunity for me to apologize to you. However, although I am sorry on the one hand, I am delighted on the other, for your eagerness bodes well. Therefore, as we evoke the future of literature, let us be realistic and not defeatist.)

  • 9 In English in the text.
  • 10 Roland Barthes, La Préparation du roman, Seuil, 2003, p. 377.

31What is the pertinence – English has old French words that are more meaningful than ours: what is the “relevance” or “significance”9 of literature in life? What is its strength, not only in terms of pleasure but also of knowledge, not only in terms of escapism but also of action? These demands become more pressing after the time of the avant-garde, when faith in progress is in a lull. Whether one was for or against it, this faith determined the movement of modernity: literature was inspired by the project of going ever further; it followed the impetus which, with the avant-garde, took the form of the “ever less”: purification of the novel and poetry, concentration of every genre upon itself, reduction of each medium to its essence. The technical challenges were at the forefront: the character was first restricted to the internal point of view or monologue, and then erased. The New Novel rebelled against the analytical novel, poetry against the narrative, the Text against the author... One looked neither back nor to the side, down to the side of popular literature, the drawing-room variety, the type that sells and that people read. All mention of the power of literature was judged obscene, for it was agreed that literature was pointless, and that all that mattered was its self-mastery. However, in our period of latency where confidence in the future in the form of progressivism is no longer on the agenda, evolutionism, on which literature has relied for at least a century, seems to be over. In his last lecture at the Collège de France in 1980, Roland Barthes, who was searching for a third form of literature between the essay and the novel, hoped for the advent of “Optimism without Progressivism”10. If its history, its progress and its autonomous movement no longer legitimize literature, how should its authority be founded?


  • 11 Émile Zola, “Le naturalisme au théâtre”, Le Roman expérimental (1880), Œuvres complètes, Cercle du (...)
  • 12 Gustave Lanson, “La littérature et la science”, Hommes et livres (1895), Essais de méthode, de crit (...)

32“The truth is that the masterpieces of the contemporary novel say much more about man and nature than do serious works of philosophy, history and criticism”, affirmed Zola11. As an exercise in thought and an experience of writing, literature corresponds to an undertaking of gaining knowledge about humans and the world. A Montaigne essay, a Racine tragedy, a Baudelaire poem, Proust’s novel: they all teach us more about life than long scholarly treaties. Such was for a long time the justification of ordinary reading and the premise of literary erudition. Has science disqualified them? So it has been said. “As soon as man can hope to know, playing no longer amuses him, and the artist is dispossessed by the scholar”, observed Gustave Lanson in 189512. This long-lasting tendency supposedly began in the classical age, when the belles-lettres started losing large sections of discourse one by one, and literature gradually restricted itself to difficult fiction.

  • 13 Louis de Bonald, Mélanges littéraires, politiques et philosophiques, Œuvres complètes, Migne, 1859, (...)

33Bonald, a reactionary thinker, described at the beginning of the nineteenth century what he called “the war between science and literature”: “For some time the symptoms of discord between the republic of science and that of literature have been apparent. […] The sciences accuse literature of being jealous of its progress. Literature reproaches the sciences for being arrogant and having excessive ambition”13. The “exact sciences” and the “frivolous letters” – those were his terms – were arguing about who would play the role of morality. However, the sciences were starting to enjoy greater prestige: “Everything is pointing towards the imminent downfall of the Republic of Letters, and the universal domination of the exact and natural sciences”, Bonald concluded, while at the same time regretting that moral sciences – theology and politics – were not in a condition to “make their mediation respected”.

34Since then the theme of the two or three cultures has become a cliché. In an unforgettable lecture delivered in Cambridge in 1959, the physicist Charles Percy Snow insisted on the irrevocable antagonism between “scientific culture” and “literary culture”. The sociologist Wolf Lepenies claimed in 1985 that the conflict involved not two but three cultures, the third one being the “sociological culture” that had recovered well since Bonald. Snow and Lepenies took as an established fact the modern expropriation of literature, which had apparently lost its age-old prerogatives, first to the natural and life sciences, then to the social sciences and the humanities.

35Yet what is this opposition, which is particularly set within French culture, between scientists and literary scholars? For a long time there had been no antinomy between the two, but the rift was opened by reforms in the school system, from the “change of direction” introduced in 1852 from the third year of secondary school by Hippolyte Fortoul, then Minister of Public Instruction, to the reform of secondary schools in 1902, which instituted equal status of the classical and modern baccalaureates, and which gradually marginalized classical languages and humanities in high schools.

  • 14 Baudelaire, “L’École païenne” (1852), Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1975-1976, (...)

36Reacting to the presumed divide between literature and knowledge, certain literary schools aimed to reconquer authority by deriving inspiration from the scientific model. Baudelaire himself, who was opposed to the romantic concept of inspiration, was becoming enthusiastic about science in 1852: “The time is not far when one will understand that any literature that refuses to walk hand in hand with science and philosophy is a homicidal and suicidal literature”14. He was soon to become disillusioned and to promote, with modernity, a literature that Pierre Bourdieu described as “autonomous”, with reference to its increasing specialization, restriction and intransitivity.

37Closer to us, the late twentieth-century literary and theoretical avant-garde thought that by rising to the formalisms of science they would avoid the ideological trap of criticism. The bad conscience of literary scholars has led to the situation where, by an amusing exchange of roles where everyone is miscast, it is the scientists who have often behaved as better supporters of the humanist tradition. Today, as we are experiencing an upheaval of schooling that is as decisive as the turning point of 1902, and which is no longer affecting classical culture and ancient languages but modern culture and French language, it is literary knowledge that we must rise up to defend.


38During the course of history, many remarkable definitions have been given of the power of literature – of its usefulness and relevance. Are these definitions still acceptable? If the question is being raised, could it be because it is already too late to answer it? It did not come up at the time when the power of literature was established and the issue was more about how to undermine it.

  • 15 Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”, Essays (1597), Francis Bacon, Oxford University Press, “The Oxford Aut (...)

39We read because, even though reading is not essential for living, life is easier, clearer and fuller for those who read than for those who do not. In a very simple sense first: living is easier – I was thinking about it recently in China – for those who know how to read, not only information, user manuals, prescriptions, newspapers and ballot papers, but also literature. Then, literary culture was supposed to make one a better person and to give one a better life. Francis Bacon said it all: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not”15. According to Bacon, who concurred with Montaigne, reading avoids us having to resort to slyness, hypocrisy and treacherousness. It thus makes us true and sincere, or simply better people.

40Let me remind you of three or four familiar explanations of the power of literature.

  • 16 Aristote, Poétique, 1448 b 5.
  • 17 Ibid., 1449 b 28.

411. The first is the classical definition, which allowed Aristotle, against Plato, to rehabilitate poetry by virtue of the “good life”. It is thanks to mimesis, which today is translated by representation or by fiction rather than imitation, that humans learn – thus by means of literature, understood as fiction. “To represent is [...] a natural tendency in humans – and they differentiate themselves from other animals in so far as they are very much inclined to represent, and they begin to learn through representation – just like the tendency that we all have of taking pleasure in representations”16. Literature pleases and instructs. Further into the Poetics, catharsis itself, the purification or purging of passions through representation, results in a better life, both private and public17. Literature – I will not justify here the anachronism which consists in translating poiesis or mimesis by literature – holds a moral power.

42From Horace to Quintilian and to French classicism, the answer will remain the same: literature teaches while pleasing, in accordance with the perennial theory of dulce et utile. As La Fontaine put it:

  • 18 The Shepherd and the Lion, VI, 1” in La Fontaine (2007), The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontain (...)

Fables are not what they appear to be.
The merest animals can, pleasingly, Instruct by deed, not dull advice: we swallow Gladly their tales, whence must the precepts follow. To teach, to please... Such is the aim twofold Behind these fictions. For, if truth be told, To do no more than entertain, to tell A story for the story's sake seems, well, A trifle frivolous18.

43Tales, pretence and fiction educate morally. This role is exemplified in Manon Lescaut, the standard realist novel. Its “author’s opinion” argues firmly in this direction: “Besides the pleasure of enjoyable reading, one will find few events in it that could not serve to instruct in mores; and it is, in my opinion, to be of great service to the public, to instruct them while amusing them”. Prévost insists on the disagreement that one usually finds among humans between their knowledge of rules and their observance of them: “One cannot reflect on the precepts of morality without being astonished to see them both esteemed and neglected; and one wonders what it is in this oddity of the human heart which makes it taste ideas of good and perfection, from which he strays in practice”. He explains this “contradiction of our ideas and our conduct” by the fact that “all of the moral precepts being only vague and general principles, it is very difficult to apply them in a particular fashion to the details of mores and actions”. That is why experience and example guide behaviour better than rules. However, experience depends on one’s fortune: “That leaves only example which can serve as a rule for a number of people in the practice of virtue.” Such is the usefulness of his novel: “Every fact that is told in it is a degree of light, a lesson that makes up for experience; each adventure is a model from which one can educate oneself. One only needs to adjust it to one’s own circumstances. The entire work is a moral treatise, pleasantly boiled down to an exercise”.

  • 19 Robert Musil, “L’obscène et le malsain dans l’art” (1911), Essais, trans. P. Jaccottet, Seuil, 1984 (...)

44Not far from Prévost in truth, Robert Musil maintained in the twentieth century that art “represents not in an abstract but in a concrete way, and not the general, but the particular cases whose complex sonority also includes vague general notes”19. With literature, the concrete replaces the abstract, and example replaces experience, to inspire general maxims or at least a conduct that is in conformity with such maxims. There is no better definition of the novel than that of Prévost, and the philosophers of the “ethical turning point” would not challenge it today.

45This classical response has incidentally been updated and reformulated by Paul Ricoeur, after years of literary theory: narratives – here again, I will not scrutinize the necessary distinctions between a narrative and fiction – are irreplaceable for configurating human experience, beginning with the experience of time. Knowledge about oneself therefore presupposes the form of the narrative.

462. A second definition of the power of literature, which emerged with the Enlightenment and was deepened by romanticism, made of it no longer a means of educating while pleasing, but a remedy. It freed individuals from subjection to authorities, so thought the philosophers, and it freed them in particular from religious obscurantism. Literature, an instrument of justice and tolerance, and reading, an experience of autonomy, contribute to freedom and to individual responsibility. These are all values of the Enlightenment, which presided over the foundation of the republican school and explained the privilege that the latter gave to the study of the 18th century to the detriment of the seventeenth century – which was Catholic and monarchical – and to Voltaire versus Bossuet.

  • 20 Que peut la littérature ?, UGE, 1965, p. 109 and p. 127.

47During a significant debate entitled “What can literature do?”, held at the Maison de la Mutualité in 1964 on the initiative of Clarté, the newsletter of the UEC (Union of Communist Students), and which answered his own “What is literature?”, Sartre, who was himself true to the spirit of the Enlightenment, conferred on literature – even though “there is no book that has ever stopped a child from dying” – the power to help us evade “the forces of alienation or of oppression”20.

48Literature is opposition: it has the power to challenge subjection to power. As a challenge to established authority, it reveals the extent of its power when it is persecuted. The result is an irritating paradox, which is that freedom is not favourable to it, because it deprives it of the servitudes to which it might resist. Thus the weakening of literature in the European public sphere at the end of the 20th century could be linked to the triumph of democracy: people used to read more in Europe, and not only in the East, before the fall of the Berlin wall.

  • 21 William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802), Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800(...)

49The romantic novel, which was an antidote to the fragmentation of the subjective experience that followed the industrial revolution and the division of labour, claimed to restore the unity of communities, identities and knowledge, and to redeem life in this way. As Wordsworth had announced, “In spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time”21. Literature of the imagination, precisely because it is disinterested – a “finality without an end”, as art has been defined since Kant –, acquires an interest that is again paradoxical. If it alone can act as a social bond, it is indeed in the name of its disinterestedness and of its largesse in a utilitarian world characterized by productive specializations. Universal harmony is restored by literature, because its own unity is attested by the completeness of its form, which is typically that of the lyrical poem. In reading – let us think of Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques (Poetical Meditations) –, consciousness lives in full agreement with the world. Thus literature, which is at once a symptom of and a solution for discontent in civilization, provides modern man with a vision that goes beyond the restrictions of daily life.

50However, any remedy can poison: it may cure, it may poison, or it may cure by poisoning, like “the remedy within the ailment” in Jean Starobinski’s fine title. One makes oneself sick from literature like Madame Bovary or Des Esseintes. Although literature frees one from religion, it becomes itself an opium, that is, a substitute religion, according to the Marxist vision of ideology, for such is the ambivalence of any supplement.

51Literature served as common morality in the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, after religion and before science took over: Auguste Comte, Sainte-Beuve, Gustave Lanson – or Matthew Arnold in England – were the promoters of a substitution performed in an exemplary way at school in the Third Republic. As a bulwark against “barbarism from within”, which was how the dangers of proletarian immorality were referred to in England, literature was to elevate the people to an aesthetic and ethical ideal, and to contribute to social peace. This is how great writers were recruited to serve the nation.

52One rebelled against this harnessing of literature. The supporters of art for art’s sake resented the Saint-Simonians, the Socialists and the Republicans, who entrusted literature with the mission of guiding the people. However, as this resistance confirmed the sublime disinterestedness of literature, it actually increased its virtue and in the end strengthened the confidence that society could have in its therapeutic abilities.

533. According to a third version of the power of literature, it corrects the defects of language. Literature speaks to all, it resorts to the common language, but it makes of it a language of its own – poetical or literary. Since Mallarmé and Bergson, poetry has been conceived of as a remedy, no longer of the ailments of society but, more essentially, of the inadequacy of language. To “grant a purer sense to the words of the tribe”22: according to Mallarmé in “Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe” (“The Tomb of Edgar Poe”), such will be the ambition of poetry; it will compensate for the insufficiency of language and its discreet categories, for it alone is in a position to express continuity, momentum and duration, that is to say, to suggest life. The classical and romantic definitions of the power of literature are no longer current – to educate while pleasing, to attenuate the fragmentation of experience –, instead there is a modern or even modernist project to make a philosophy, or even Philosophy, out of literature, which is to say, to go beyond ordinary language.

  • 23 Bergson, “La perception du changement” (1911), La Pensée et le mouvant (1934), PUF, “Quadrige” coll (...)

54Bergson built his work on the process of language, whose categories he deemed unfit to disentangle reality with the required subtlety, but poetry saved him from linguistic pessimism. If conceptual intelligence fails to espouse life, literature, on the other hand, thanks to intuition and sympathy, knows how to convey movement: “There have been [...] for centuries, men whose function is precisely to see and to make us see what we do not perceive naturally. They are artists.” Art aims “to show us, in nature and in spirit, outside of us and within us, things that did not explicitely strike our senses and our awareness”. The poet and the novelist reveal to us what was in us, but what we did not know about because words were lacking, a phenomenon that Bergson describes with the help of a comparison that could recall Proust: “As they speak to us, shades of emotion and thought appear to us which could have been represented in us for a long time, but which remained invisible; just like the photographic image that has not yet been plunged into the bath where it will be revealed”23.

  • 24 Proust, Correspondance, Ph. Kolb (ed.), Plon, 1981, vol. 8, p. 277.

55The poet has at his or her disposal no longer the archaic, but the modern power – as the evocation of photography attests – to reveal a truth that is not transcendent but latent, potentially present. Hidden from consciousness, it is immanent, singular and, until now, has been inexpressible. As it plays with it, poetry goes beyond the constraints of language, visits its margins, brings to light its nuances, and enriches it by doing violence to it: “The only way to defend the French language is to attack it”, wrote Proust to Mme Straus in 190824.

  • 25 Proust, M. (1958), By Way of Sainte-Beuve, translated by Chatto & Windus, London, Townsend Warner, (...)
  • 26 Id., Carnets, Gallimard, 2002, p. 50.

56The modern power of literature makes it an antidote to philosophy, a counter-system or a counter-philosophy. Superior to philosophy, literature takes over from it and revives it. All of Proust is here: “Every day I set less store on the intellect”, he said at the beginning of La Recherche. “Every day I see more clearly that if the writer is to repossess himself of some part of his impressions, reach something personal, that is, and the only material of art, he must put it aside”25. The dead past is embodied in a certain feeling. This idea inspires the writer to ask himself with anguish: “Should I make a novel out of this? A philosophical study? Am I a novelist?”26 He conceives of involuntary memory as the locus of the real “self”, but the philosopher in him stumbles on this intuition, whereas the novelist will make us understand it by moving the boundaries of language. By teaching us not to be fooled by language, literature makes us more intelligent, or intelligent in a different way. The dilemma of social art versus art for art’s sake disappears in the face of an art which desires an understanding of the world that is free of the constraints of language.

57Among the most demanding writers of the twentieth century, the intention of redeeming philosophy with literature prevailed for a long time. After he had disowned immediate language, whose mirage the surrealists pursued through a residue of romanticism, Yves Bonnefoy, as his Anti-Platon (1947) demonstrates, based his work on the hatred of conceptual language – the goal of anti-Platonism being to defy any philosophical system in order to devote poetry to the quest of authentic presence.

  • 27 “Se débarrasser de la philosophie” (1975), in Roger-Pol Droit, Michel Foucault. Entretiens, Odile J (...)

58Notwithstanding its own power, the theoretical avant-garde was itself unable to give up the power that literature might have to transcend linguistic constraints and philosophical frameworks. Michel Foucault never treats literature like a device of power in the same way he would the other discourses. Eluding their general regime, literature remains a preferred reference located outside of philosophy, free of the determinations to which the other discourses are subjected, and excessive. He used literature to “get rid of philosophy”, as he stated in 1975: “For me, Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, Klossowski were ways of getting out of philosophy”27. Foucault showed that all discourses were in fact literature, but as only literature itself accepted its status, by a kind of poetical irony, it surpassed other discourses and kept its lofty position.

  • 28 Roland Barthes, Leçon, Seuil, 1978, p. 16.

59As for Roland Barthes, who in this very place described language as “fascist”, “for fascism is not to prevent from saying, it is to force to say”, he immediately added – a fact that was less remembered – that literature, which cheats with language and cheats language, was the only thing that saved language from power and servility, just as Bergson contrasted the in the making of poetry to the ready made of philosophy: “This salutary cheating, this sidestepping, this magnificent lure, which allows one to hear language outside of power […], for my part, I call it literature28.

604. I have quickly gone through the three powers of literature: placere et docere, reunifying experience, or mending language. These have sometimes been misused or taken advantage of, and literature has not always served just causes. That is why, since Baudelaire and Flaubert, so many writers have been tempted to challenge any power of literature other than the one it holds over itself. “To tell the truth, in art, there are no problems – of which the work of art is not a sufficient solution”, asserted Gide in 1902 in the preface of L’Immoraliste (The Immoralist), advocating a return of literature to literature, which characterised the spirit of La Nouvelle Revue française.

61The same faith was to move the mystics of writing who, after the Liberation and against commitment, made the radical choice of non-power, of unpower, or of standing outside of power, as a denial of any social or moral application of the least use value of literature, and as an affirmation of its absolute neutrality. You will have recognized the attitude of Maurice Blanchot, from whom Foucault and Barthes were not so distant, but – as we have just observed – without supporting his nihilistic rigour to the very end. Actually, in Blanchot’s own view, praising what is neutral preserved the literary exception, so the fourth power of literature could have been just an extreme variant of the third, and the terrifying point of modernity.

  • 29 Id., “Littérature et signification” (1963), Essais critiques, Seuil, 1964, p. 264.

62“Literature does not allow one to walk, but it allows one to breathe”, Barthes warned29. He thus denounced any instrumental compromise of literature; he condemned all the additional uses – educational, ideological, or even linguistic – to which it was successively put to, but not without acknowledging that it still had a pectoral value. “To breathe”: strangely, the argument he had with Raymond Picard on Racine was about the very meaning of this word: was there “breathing” when Nero went to “breathe” at the feet of Junia, or was there simply “relaxation”? Literature allows one to breathe, as in the famous air of Pelléas et Mélisande: “Ah! I am finally breathing!”

63In Beijing, one of writing’s faithfuls objected to me that the only power that literature had in his eyes was that of “killing time”. Even though his colleagues disagreed, he wasn’t wrong. “To kill time”: that was Baudelaire’s obsession, and “the laudanum vial” of the end of “La Chambre double” (“The Twofold Room”), “an old and terrible friend”, or the wine of the “Portraits de maîtresses” (“Portraits of Mistresses”) helped him to “kill Time, which has such a hard life, and to accelerate Life, which flows by so slowly”. Reading can entertain, but the way a dangerous game can: it is not a trivial pursuit.

64More seriously, Theodor Adorno and Blanchot contested that it was still possible to compose a poem or to write an account after Auschwitz. They judged literature to be pointless or even guilty, for it had not stopped the inhuman from occurring. From that moment on, art could no longer claim to redeem horror nor to make amends for life, and literature was banned. The work of Paul Celan or Samuel Beckett nevertheless testifies to its extenuated pursuit far from any desire for power. With “Lazarean literature”, one no longer survived anything; any remission or comfort became unthinkable. But what finer hommage to literature, than that of Primo Levi who, in If This Is a Man, recites Ulysse’s song and tells The Divine Comedy to his companion in Auschwitz?

  • 30 “Pensez à votre conception : vous n’avez pas été faits pour vivre comme des bêtes, mais pour suivre (...)

Considerate la vostra semenza: fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza

65The refusal to acknowledge that literature had any power other than a recreational one may have motivated the degraded notion of reading as a simple recreational pleasure, which spread through school at the end of the century. Above all, however, turning the smallest use of literature into treason meant that people were no longer taught to confide in it, but to be wary of it, like a trap. By becoming neutral or trivial, literature hoped to answer to the grievances that it had long sanctioned authorities, and above all, the nation states whose emergence it had facilitated. After the United States, resentment against literature, which is regarded as an excercise of domination, has reached France. Turning the idea of the Enlightenment upon its head, literature is increasingly perceived as a source of manipulation and no longer of liberation. The other day, I caught sight of three boys who had stopped at the doorstep of a bookshop as though it were a house of ill repute; one of them protested with pride: “I’ve never opened a book in my life. You want to make me go in there!”


  • 31 Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres (1941), in: Œuvres, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1960, vol. (...)

66What can we say today about the three positive powers of literature – the classical, the romantic and the modern –, as well as of its fourth power – the postmodern, if you will –, that of the sacred non-power? Has the moment not arrived to go from discredit to restoration and from denial to affirmation? However, can one mend that which was designed to mend? Twentiety-century literature has staged its end in a long, sumptuous suicide, for if it wished to abolish itself, it was because it still existed too much. One had one’s heart set on non-power because the all-power of literature remained basically indubitable, and absence – the absence of Mr Teste – became the supreme form of sovereignty: “Fine motto of a somebody, – of a god, perhaps? ‘I disappoint’”, Valéry had already suggested31.

  • 32 Calvino, “Il midollo del leone” (1955), Una pietra sopra (1980); trans. J.-P. Manganaro, in: Défis (...)

67It is time to begin praising literature again, to protect it from depreciation, at school and in the world. “Things that literature can research and teach are few but irreplaceable”, suggested Italo Calvino, such as “the way to look at one’s fellow man and oneself, [...] to give value to things small or big, [...] to find the proportions of life, and the place of love in it, and its strength and its rhythm, and the place of death, the way of thinking about it and of not thinking about it”, and other things “necessary and difficult”, such as “harshness, pity, sadness, irony, humour”32.

68However, it is easier to annihilate literature than to rebuild upon it. When eulogizing, how does one avoid sermonizing and, as Nietzsche said, “moraline”? There is, indeed, no new solution – we would know about it –, nor is there a miracle remedy. Why read? Other representations rival with literature in all of its uses, even the modern and the postmodern, and its power to extend beyond language and deconstruct itself. For a long time literature has not been alone in claiming the faculty of giving a form to human experience. Cinema and different media, which were hitherto deemed less worthy, have a comparable ability to make it come to life. And the idea of redemption through culture carries of whiff of romanticism. In short, literature is no longer the favoured means of acquiring a historical, aesthetic and moral consciousness, and thinking about the world and humanity through literature is no longer the most widespread approach. Does that mean that its ancient power should not be maintained, that we do not need it anymore to become who we are?

69It would be laughable if literary scholars gave up defending and illustrating literature just as other disciplines were eagerly going back to it, particularly cultural history and moral philosophy. Close to the “history of mentalities” inspired by the École des Annales, moral philosophy values collective representations peculiar to a society and explores, if not literary works in their singularity and value, at least their transmission though books and reading, editors and journals, or even the memory of ideas: I am thinking of the work of our colleagues Maurice Agulhon, Daniel Roche, Pierre Rosanvallon or Roger Chartier, and of others such as Pierre Nora, Alain Corbin or Robert Darnton.

70As to analytical moral philosophy and the theory of emotions, they are putting more and more work into literary texts: this time I am thinking about the research of our colleagues Jacques Bouveresse on Musil, Jon Elster on Stendhal, or Thomas Pavel on the novel, and of many others here or in the United States. Novels – for this is the genre that is most common – they say, have served to introduce morality in the West for two centuries. As a source of inspiration, literature helps us develop our personality or our “sentimental education”, just as religious readings did for our ancestors. It helps us gain access to a sensitive experience and to knowledge of morality which would be difficult, or even impossible, to obtain in the philosophers’ treatises. It therefore makes an irreplaceable contribution to practical and speculative ethics.

  • 33 Musil, “La connaissance chez l’écrivain” (1918), Essais, op. cit., p. 83.

71Proceeding from Wittgenstein’s distrust of philosophical systems and of moral rules, the ethical return to literature is based on the refusal of the idea that only a theory made of universal propositions can teach us something real about the “good life”. As literature has the distinctive characteristic of analyzing the ever particular relationships that link together beliefs, emotions, the imagination, and action, it holds irreplaceable knowledge on human nature that is detailed and impossible to summarize – a knowledge of singularities. Musil thus attributed to literature “the domain of the reaction of the individual to the world and to others, the domain of values and of evaluations, of ethical and aesthetical relations, the domain of ideas”33.

72Literature must thus be read and studied because it gives us a means – some would even say the only one – to preserve and pass on the experience of others, those who are far away from us in space and time, or who differ from us in terms of their living conditions. It makes us sensitive to the fact that others are very diverse and that their values are different from ours. Thus, a civil servant who is well aware of what makes the ending of La Princesse de Clèves sublime will be more open to the strangeness of the mores of those who fall within his jurisdiction.

  • 34 Samuel Johnson, “Review of Soame Jenyns, A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil” (1757), (...)
  • 35 T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), in: Christianity and Culture, New York (...)

73On this invigorated premise, the humanist formula, now outside of any conflict with religion and science, may itself be rethought; that of Montaigne or Bacon, who insisted that a man of culture lives better, that literature contributes to the “good life”. Samuel Johnson had summed it all up beautifully: “The only purpose of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”34. In 1949, T.S. Eliot stressed that “culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living”35. He judged that, as the human condition could not be understood in its complexity without the help of literature, those who read the best writers know most about the world and live better.

74At the end of the twentieth century this ultimate western apologia of literature was described as conservative. Literature and its teaching were accused of concealing the antagonisms running through society, for example by claiming that a narrow selection of national literature – the famous “dead white males” canon – was the expression of universal humanity. However, contemporary moral philosophy has restored the legitimity of emotion and empathy to the principle of reading: the literary text speaks to me of me and of others; it arouses my compassion; when I am reading, I identify with others and I am moved by their destiny; their joys and their woes are momentarily mine.

75In the eyes of literary scholars, philosophers’ analyses sometimes seem naive, because they ignore the special language of literature, spoil the complexity of meaning, or immoderately look to the author’s intention. However, do they not propose the best justification possible for the maintained and even reinforced presence of literature at school, not only of language games and documentary texts? Moral philosophy flies to the rescue of humanist teaching, whereas the unhappy consciousness that their theory inspired in them, from self-referentiality to deconstruction and then to constructionism, hinders literary scholars.

  • 36 Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, New York, Scribner, 2000, p. 195.

76In their turn, the critic Harold Bloom and the writer Milan Kundera have no qualms about reviving an ethic of reading: The supreme answer to the question ‘Why read?’, writes Bloom, is that “only deep and constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self”36. Thanks to reading, an independant personality, which is able to reach out to others, is created. Paul Ricoeur was not suggesting anything else when he contended that narrative identity – the aptitude to put the heterogenous events of one’s existence into a concording narrative form – was indispensable for the constitution of an ethics.

  • 37 Milan Kundera (2007), The Curtain: an Essay in Seven Parts, HarperCollins (Milan Kundera, Le Rideau(...)
  • 38 Boswell’s Life of Johnson (15 May 1783); Bloom, How to Read and Why, op. cit., p. 23.
  • 39 Kundera, The Curtain, op. cit.

77According to Kundera, the novel “tears the curtain” of illusion37, of the doxa or of the ready made, which Bloom called “cant”, the hackneyed phrases or track thinking which recalls Kakanien in The Man Without Qualities, or Kankanien, according to a felicitous slip of the tongue. One of Samuel Johnson’s maxims that Bloom liked was: “Clear your mind of cant”38, “Clear your mind of conventionalities”, or even of Phariseeism, of hypocrisy and of blindness concerning yourself, which is how William Hazlitt understood “cant”. Literature disconcerts, disturbs, and disorients more than philosophical, sociological or psychological speeches, because it appeals to the emotions and to empathy. Thus, it covers spheres of experience that other discourses neglect, but which fiction acknowledges in their detail. According to Hermann Broch’s fine expression that Kundera recalled, the only moral of the novel is knowledge; “a novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral”39. Literature frees us from our conventional ways of thinking about life – our own life and that of others –; it ruins clear consciences and insincerity. Constitutively oppositional or paradoxical – protestant like the protervus of the old scholastics, reactionary to common sense –, it resists foolishness, not violently but in a subtle and obstinate manner. Its emancipating power remains intact, which will at times make us feel like bringing down idols and changing the world. However, most of the time it will simply make us more sensitive and wiser; in a word, better.

78It is not that we find universal truths or general rules in literature, nor crystal clear examples. Prévost thought that his readers would induce the rule of example. However, literature works differently to commandments, but also to parables. Manon Lescaut, far from being read as an allegory of profane and sacred love, of Eros and Agape, soon became the enigmatic model of passionate love for generations of young people: the novel gave them sensitivity, not knowledge or a sense of duty. Besides, is it not often by having its plan fail that a literary work succeeds? By expressing exception, literature provides a different kind of knowledge to scholarly knowledge, but one that is better able to explain human behaviour and motivations. Literature thinks, but not in the way that science or philosophy does. Its thinking is heuristic (it never ceases to seek), non-algorithmic: it proceeds by feeling its way along, without calculating, through intuition, with flair. “Excellent hunting dog. Pity he doesn’t have a nose”, was what was said of Taine at the Magny dinners: he finished writing De l’intelligence (Of Intelligence), not the Stendhalian novel he had dreamed of writing.

  • 40 Marcel Proust (2010), In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grove, translated by Chat (...)

79Literature teaches us to feel better, and as our senses are limitless, it never concludes, but remains open like an essay by Montaigne, after having made us see, smell or feel the incertitudes and indecisions, the complications and the paradoxes concealed behind actions – meanders within which discourses of knowledge lose their way, but which a long sentence by Proust describes perfectly, like in the certainly parodic example where the narrator vainly adresses the lift attendant of the Balbec Grand Hotel: “But he vouchsafed no answer, whether from astonishment at my words, preoccupation with his work, regard for etiquette, hardness of hearing, respect for holy ground, fear of danger, slowness of understanding, or the manager’s orders”40.

  • 41 Kundera, The Curtain, op. cit.

80Literature therefore thinks. Literature is an excercise in thinking; reading is an experiment with the different possibilities. Nothing has ever made me perceive better the anxiety of guilt than the feverish pages of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov reasons on a crime which may as well not have occured and which each of us has committed. Even when the modern novel – in Proust or Musil’s work – annexes the essay and the situations are reasoned as much as they are told, it does not illustrate a system, but invents a thought that is indissociable from fiction, which aims less at formulating truths than at introducing doubt, ambiguities and questioning into our certitudes. “The omnipresence of thinking”, concludes Kundera, “in no way deprives the novel of its nature as a novel; it has enriched its form and immensely broadened the realm of what only the novel can discover and say41.

81That is how a novel can change our life without there being an assignable reason for that, without the effects of reading being traceable to any truth statement. It is not this or that sentence by Proust which made me become who I am, but the reading of La Recherche (In Search of Lost Time) as a whole, after that of The Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) and of Crime and Punishment, because La Recherche has reshaped all of the books that I had read up to then. “Become who you are!”, literature murmurs into my ear, following the injunction in Pindar’s Pythian 2, taken up again by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.


82Ladies and Gentlemen,

83I have attempted to explain how and why to teach literature at the beginning of this century. You may perhaps object by saying: “Does literature alone allow us to link up life, then? So we have got no further than the romantic remedy! And what about film, and music? Can we not sing the praises of 21st century literature as an emancipation from gossip, without this being in an elegiac mode, in reaction to the digital empire and steeped in fear of the demise of the book?”

84There is just one point in the retort I anticipate you might make and which bothers me: must I maintain that literature exclusively initiates us into the world? Can I also assert that literature uncovers for us a part of human experience that would otherwise remain inaccessible to us without it? Recall Calvino’s thought: “There are things that only literature can give us.” Or Bloom’s words: “Only deep and constant reading...” Or Kundera’s insistance on “that which only the novel can discover and tell”. Is it likely that literature alone, reading alone, the novel alone could provide me with that which other discourses, images and sounds would be incapable of? Not information, which is found elsewhere in immeasurable wealth, but education for oneself and a path towards others. Is it true that fiction is the only genre that speaks to me fully of certain aspects of life?

85In truth, this requirement seems to me outrageous. However, if I cease to claim that there are things that literature alone can give me by its own means, would my apologia for literature risk amounting to a conservative utopia and condemning itself to a feeling of nostalgia for a lost unity? Must I conclude that after many centuries literature no longer plays a primary role in the recognition by one and all of the user manual for one’s life? That we no longer need it?

86To be sure, who can do more can do less, but pleas in favour of literature alone, of reading alone, of the novel alone, defensively close themselves up, for there is no need to claim such privileges. To want too much is self-defeating. Do biographies not make us live the life of others? Does cinema not contribute to our experience of narration and thus to the realization of our identity? Who, whilst reading Freud, has not undergone some experience of recognition?

87There is nothing there to justify a loss of confidence. All forms of narration, including film and history, speak to us of human life. The novel, however, does so with more care than the mobile image and more efficiently than the news in brief, for its penetrating instrument is language, and it leaves imaginary experience and moral deliberation all of their freedom, especially in the prolonged solitude of reading. That time is my own. I could no doubt suspend the play of the film, put the image on pause, but it would still last one and a half hours, whereas I am master of the rhythm of my reading and of the approvals and disapprovals that it arouses in me. That is why literature remains the best introduction to the understanding of images. And literature – the novel, poetry or drama – introduces me in a superior manner to the finer points of language and to the kind attentions of interviews, or even of bantering, like in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance, 2004), where – a gripping tribute to literature – young people from the suburbs put on Marivaux’ play at a secondary school and the playwright’s language, as counterpoint to their own speech, reveals them to themselves. Literature is not alone, but it pays more attention than the image does and is more efficient than documents, and that is enough to guarantee its perennial value: it is La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual), according to Georges Perec’s perfect title.

  • 42 Baudelaire, Mon cœur mis à nu, in: Œuvres complètes, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 701.

88However, I have spoken too much as though there were only one literature and it were essentially narrative. No, and neither is reading always a solitary act. It could even be that it will become less silent than in the previous century and that it may become more active, more physical, and more dramatic. I mentioned, to begin with, the tradition of the study of modern French literature at the Collège de France and elsewhere, for two centuries; I must insist on ending on the diversity of French literature, today’s and yesterday’s, and on our many ways of putting them to their best advantage, everywhere and here too: medieval literature with Michel Zink, Neo-Latin European literature with Carlo Ossola, poetical creation with Micheal Edwards, and modern and contemporary literature, without forgetting moral philosophy, history of books and history of art. There will never be too many of us to celebrate literature, whether written or oral, narrative or dramatic, the prose of ideas or poetry, as well as images – “my big, my unique, my primitive passion”, proclaimed Baudelaire42.

89Have I answered the questions I asked earlier? Literature, what for? Is literature replaceable? It has competitors in all of its uses and holds no monopoly on anything, but humility becomes it and its powers are still huge; it can thus be embraced without any qualms and its rightful place is guaranteed. The ever unfinished exercise of reading remains the place par excellence for learning about oneself and about others, for discovering not a firm personality, but an identity that is constantly evolving.

90At the Collège de France, my teaching, in its theoretical, historical, but also critical vocation, will bet on literature and on its rising value. Its project will be to assert that the dispossession of literature, which began a long time ago, perhaps since the beginning of time, will never end, because it belongs to the same movement – odi et amo – of literature and modernity, and because it is its weakness – that of Roman Jakobson confronted with a sonnet of Du Bellay – which makes literature desirable.


1 Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Lettre à M. de Tissandier, 23 mars 1628, Œuvres complètes, 1665, t. I, p. 362.

2 Baudelaire, Lettre à Narcisse Ancelle, 18 février 1866, Correspondance, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1973, vol. 2, p. 610.

3 Sainte-Beuve, “Pensées de Pascal” (1844), Portraits contemporains, M. Lévy, New Edition, 1871, vol. 5, p. 197.

4 Valéry, Cahiers (1921), Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1974, vol. 2, p. 1187.

5 Georges Blin, La Cribleuse de blé, José Corti, 1968, p. 29.

6 Sainte-Beuve, “Pensées”, Portraits littéraires, Garnier, New Edition, 1864, vol. 3, p. 549.

7 Italo Calvino, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (1988); English translation: Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Vintage International, 1993.

8 Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1987-1989, 4 vol., vol. 4, p. 474.

9 In English in the text.

10 Roland Barthes, La Préparation du roman, Seuil, 2003, p. 377.

11 Émile Zola, “Le naturalisme au théâtre”, Le Roman expérimental (1880), Œuvres complètes, Cercle du livre précieux, 1968, vol. 10, p. 1240.

12 Gustave Lanson, “La littérature et la science”, Hommes et livres (1895), Essais de méthode, de critique et d’histoire littéraire, H. Peyre (ed.), Hachette, 1965, p. 118.

13 Louis de Bonald, Mélanges littéraires, politiques et philosophiques, Œuvres complètes, Migne, 1859, vol. 3, p. 1071.

14 Baudelaire, “L’École païenne” (1852), Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1975-1976, vol. 2, p. 49.

15 Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”, Essays (1597), Francis Bacon, Oxford University Press, “The Oxford Authors”, 1996, p. 439.

16 Aristote, Poétique, 1448 b 5.

17 Ibid., 1449 b 28.

18 The Shepherd and the Lion, VI, 1” in La Fontaine (2007), The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, University of Illinois Press. (La Fontaine, “Le pâtre et le lion”, Fables, VI, i.)

19 Robert Musil, “L’obscène et le malsain dans l’art” (1911), Essais, trans. P. Jaccottet, Seuil, 1984, p. 29.

20 Que peut la littérature ?, UGE, 1965, p. 109 and p. 127.

21 William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802), Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800, Ithaca/London, Cornell University Press, 1992, p. 753.

22 Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Tomb of Edgar Allan Poe”, translated by A. S. Kline © 2004-2009 All rights reserved.

23 Bergson, “La perception du changement” (1911), La Pensée et le mouvant (1934), PUF, “Quadrige” collection, p. 149-150.

24 Proust, Correspondance, Ph. Kolb (ed.), Plon, 1981, vol. 8, p. 277.

25 Proust, M. (1958), By Way of Sainte-Beuve, translated by Chatto & Windus, London, Townsend Warner, p. 17. (Id., Contre Sainte-Beuve, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1971, p. 211).

26 Id., Carnets, Gallimard, 2002, p. 50.

27 “Se débarrasser de la philosophie” (1975), in Roger-Pol Droit, Michel Foucault. Entretiens, Odile Jacob, 2004, p. 88.

28 Roland Barthes, Leçon, Seuil, 1978, p. 16.

29 Id., “Littérature et signification” (1963), Essais critiques, Seuil, 1964, p. 264.

30 “Pensez à votre conception : vous n’avez pas été faits pour vivre comme des bêtes, mais pour suivre vertu et connaissance” (L’Enfer, chant XXVI).

31 Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres (1941), in: Œuvres, Gallimard, “Pléiade” collection, 1960, vol. 2, p. 867.

32 Calvino, “Il midollo del leone” (1955), Una pietra sopra (1980); trans. J.-P. Manganaro, in: Défis aux labyrinthes, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 30.

33 Musil, “La connaissance chez l’écrivain” (1918), Essais, op. cit., p. 83.

34 Samuel Johnson, “Review of Soame Jenyns, A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil” (1757), Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, “The Oxford Authors”, 1991, p. 536.

35 T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), in: Christianity and Culture, New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1949, p. 100.

36 Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, New York, Scribner, 2000, p. 195.

37 Milan Kundera (2007), The Curtain: an Essay in Seven Parts, HarperCollins (Milan Kundera, Le Rideau, Gallimard, 2005, p. 145).

38 Boswell’s Life of Johnson (15 May 1783); Bloom, How to Read and Why, op. cit., p. 23.

39 Kundera, The Curtain, op. cit.

40 Marcel Proust (2010), In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grove, translated by Chatto and Windus, Vintage, p. 281. (Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 26).

41 Kundera, The Curtain, op. cit.

42 Baudelaire, Mon cœur mis à nu, in: Œuvres complètes, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 701.


Professor at the Collège de France, Chair of Modern and Contemporary French Literature: History, Criticism, Theory
Liz Libbrecht (Traducteur)

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