Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle

Joan DeJean
Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1997
216 pp., $16.95 paper; $42.00 hc

Marvin D. L. Lansverk
Montana State University-Bozeman

Joan DeJean's Ancient Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle is a spotty but interesting work, frustrating to read but ultimately worth the effort. It is set up to take advantage of our impending century and millennium shift, and the concomitant publicity enveloping the current round of so called culture wars in the United States and elsewhere.

DeJean's framing argument is that conservative participants in our culture wars, Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch among them, have gained audiences and power with a historical ploy. Doomed to repeat the past unless we follow their advice, they argue, the United States is undergoing its own fin de siècle, one with ominous links to the defining modern European version of a hundred years ago. In the fin de siècle that gave rise to the term in the first place, late nineteenth century France exhibited a period of astonishing cultural decay, decadence, and loss of social cohesion. So too is the United States, and for many of the same reasons. We too are straying from core cultural values embodied by the literary canon.

DeJean suggests that while historical comparisons are worthwhile, conservatives are making the wrong one. A better historical perspective is provided by the fin de siècle concluding the seventeenth century, not the nineteenth. Her argument is not simply an expression of which comparison better fits one's politics (though it is certainly that too). DeJean is a New Historicist. She is interested in the history of ideas and how those ideas themselves interact with the histories we write. A chief task of the book is thus to historicize the idea of the fin de siècle, in addition to a handful of other key terms: "century, public, sensibility, culture and civilization" (xiii). As may be expected, she contrasts this approach with older historical methods, such as that used by Hillel Schwartz, in Century's End. DeJean argues that he makes the same mistake as current conservative cultural warriors in his examination of the years at the end of the last ten centuries. That is, he misguidedly takes the nineteenth century version as a universal model of the fin de siècle--defined by its association with decadence, revolution, degradation, and apocalypse--and then works backwards. DeJean rejects such universalization, but she also wants even more accurate (new) historicizing than has emerged to date.

De Jean argues for pushing back the dates of major cultural shifts, of mentalities, from the eighteenth century into the seventeenth. She argues that many concepts achieve conceptual functionality prior to their actual appearance. With this in mind, she finds that the idea (if not the actual label) of the fin de siècle first emerged at the end of the seventeenth century, and it emerged in a form significantly different from its incarnation two hundred years later. While both versions involved looking back, self evaluation, and turbulence, DeJean argues that the defining characteristic of the first fin de siècle was its Culture Wars rather than revolution. Her point is that our current version is similarly not to be characterized by apocalypse and revolution, but by Culture Wars as well.

What follows is not an analysis of contemporary culture wars or even a very detailed comparison of the three fins de siecle. Instead, DeJean's book is comprised chiefly of a reading of the history of late seventeenth century France and its cultural battles. Her job is to recharacterize the conceptual framework of our debate by providing a part of what she sees as its most relevant history through an entertaining, parabolic style. That is, she offers her reading as a kind of counter parable, what she calls "a cautionary tale," to correct the apocalyptic story proffered by Bloom and others. In Aesop fashion, she too waits until the end to sketch out her moral, leaving it broad enough for readers to make their own more detailed applications.

The heart of DeJean's book, and its most readable section, is a recounting of the history of the Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns, seen as the first Culture War. The unraveling of the history itself becomes her definition of the idea of Culture Wars, which she sees as inextricably tied with fin de siècle events. The focus of her fascinating story is Charles Perrault, man of letters, fairy tale writer, and top gun for the Moderns in the Quarrel. On January 22, Perrault read his 26-page narrative poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, at the Académie Française. Perrault contended that Moderns were superior to Ancients in most respects because they had the benefit of standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. Further, Homer himself could not simply be venerated without criticism because he contained many defects and had finally been improved upon in French literature. Head Ancient Nicolas Boileau was so violently disturbed throughout that he could barely keep his seat. Having opened the door to the canon debate in this incendiary fashion (to criticize Homer was to criticize God and all principles of order), Perrault walked straight through it: he then questioned the very existence of a stable classical canon, suggesting that tastes varied even in classical times. As a result, who knew which contemporary authors would survive? He did proffer his own list of possible survivors, itself influenced by his bias against slavish classical emulation.

Though his claims of the superiority of the Moderns over the Ancients were not new, the reading immediately produced academic fireworks that soon drew a new reading public into the debate as well. Indeed, a crucial aspect was the level of popular interest in the debate. In the past, academic arguments had remained within the bounds of elite circles. This time, the arguments spilled out into the streets. In DeJean's characterization, these Culture Wars lasted in their first phase until the two chief protagonists, Perrault and Boileau, finally embraced in an arranged public truce in 1694. The second phase began in 1710 (this time identified as the Quarrel over Homer), under the leadership of a new head Ancient, Anne Dacier, with her publication of a translation of the Iliad. The Modern's response also came in the form of an Iliad translation, this time Houdar de La Motte's. But this second phase is to be distinguished from true Culture Wars, in DeJean's conception, because it extended beyond the end of the century. And true Culture Wars, as she wants to define them, are necessarily a fin de siècle phenomena.

DeJean's explanation of why the firestorm occurred at this particular time, in 1687, and thereby qualifies as the first Culture War, is tied up with the emergence of a host of cultural changes, all centrally concentrated in the emergence of the novel and accompanying modifications in the business of literature. The rest of DeJean's work is dedicated to sorting through many of these changes. To some extent, DeJean's work thus does for seventeenth century French literature, what Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong, J. Paul Hunter, and others have done for eighteenth century English fiction. The package of subjects is rather what we have come to expect in discussions of novels since Ian Watt and his responders: the impact of the rise of the reading public, affectivity, interiority, subjectivity, the rise of the novel itself.

In the simplest terms, the reason why the public responded to Perrault's recycling of the Modern's position was that this reading body had only recently been brought into existence. DeJean illustrates this in some of the usual ways, mentioning rising literacy rates and the accompanying rise of print journalism. But DeJean puts a face on these numbers by concentrating on the role of Jean Donneau de Visè, influential editor of what DeJean calls "the first true newspaper in France," Le Mercure galant. He refashioned his periodical into a nationwide book group for literary discussion.

Her story also includes some attention to a subject familiar to readers of the history of the English novel: the connection of the up swell of detailed descriptions of feelings to the other events she has been tracing. DeJean agrees that sentiment, sensibility, and interiority emerge within the novel genre as a whole, as English readers of Richardson, Burney, and Austen will know, but in her view, credit for the actual invention of subjectivity also lies in France, especially in the pair of ten volume novels of Madeleine de Scudery: Artamene, ou le grand Cyrus (1649-53) and Clélie, histoire romaine (1654-60). What makes this especially interesting is that in contrast to England, where domesticity played the key role in the new feminine subjectivity, the prominent role of novels by women in France, their non-domestic subject matter, and the public debate over them, makes the articulation of French subjectivity appear to have more in common with modern feminism, in DeJean's view, than private home life.

While the story of the rise of the novel makes for a fascinating success story--marking the growing influence of a new class of readers with a new subjectivity--DeJean's tale is nevertheless more tragedy than comedy. For in her focus on the first Culture Wars, her conclusion is that the Moderns blew it. In spite of the success of their new literary genre and their other new periodical vehicles, in spite of the fact that Perrault and his Moderns quickly won nearly all the battles for the attention of this new public audience, they still lost the war. In DeJean's polemic phrasing, "the Moderns fought the Culture Wars for nothing" (138). That is, though they won the minds of the new public, they lost control where it counted: in the public institutions where power resided, in schools and universities, in writing literary histories, and in establishing the canon.

DeJean concludes this tale with a brief explication of the significance of her parable, complete with cross-century identifications: e.g., conservative Cultural Warriors today and defenders of the Western canon are our Ancients. Proponents of cultural studies and of expanding or exploding the canon are our Moderns. The discussion is intriguing and suggestive. And the stark moral DeJean draws from the comparison is this: though the Ancients have begun the fight this time, if we are not careful today, the present round of Culture Wars will again be for nothing. That is, if current Moderns are not careful to put (and keep) contemporary cultural theory and canon challenges into practice (DeJean cites the rhubarb over the Stanford course in Western culture here) in a more effective manner than Perrault and his followers, then we will be doomed to repeat seventeenth century history. The irony, in her view, is that our Ancients, having in effect learned from this seventeenth century version, are noisily and busily rewriting history to cover their tracks, pointing only to the fin de siècle most apt for their jeremiad, the nineteenth.

DeJean's work is short, but packs in a lot. Unfortunately, however, at times it reads more like so many provocative essays tacked together than a fully realized coherent work. The problems with organization emerge in the first chapter, where DeJean defers her discussion of the French Culture Wars until the subsequent chapter, yet makes them central to her explanation of the seventeenth century fin de siècle, producing a discussion that reads more as a chain of assertions than explanations. The bold assertions then lead to conclusions that seem fairly tepid, establishing a pattern for the rest of the book.

Its chief problem, I believe, is that it extends its parabolic method too far, taking parable in the literal sense of the term, of "to throw beside." Throwing our Culture Wars beside the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns in France is productive if taken analogically, but this framing device is too often carried into the methodology as well. Too often, DeJean remains satisfied continuing simply to throw complicated elements in the history of culture and the novel one next to another, without enough sorting out of specific, contextual connections. Her defense is that she wants to avoid the oversimplification she criticizes in traditional histories. But lack of oversimplification is no substitute for trenchant analysis and sifting of evidentiary details.

Further, and perhaps unintentionally, the book's structure has an odd aura of sleight-of-hand to it. It is persuasive in its argument that certain concepts achieve conceptual functionality prior to their actual appearance. The concepts of culture, gender, and fin de siècle do have cultural force before their Enlightenment appearances. But it is a greater stretch to suggest that the politically charged labels of our own day, specifically Culture Wars, have a similar functionality. When DeJean argues that Perrault and others, in debating the "merits of ancient and modern authors...had in mind a meaning close to what is conveyed today by the use of canon" (139), many readers would agree. But in additionally asserting that "when seventeenth-century Moderns invented 'culture'...they meant something very close to what their heirs today wish to project when they turn to adjectives such as multicultural and transnational" (139-140), it would seem that DeJean has slipped into disingenuity, or at least to constructing parables. Nevertheless, DeJean's book is intriguing, if imperfect. It successfully provides a more nuanced historical framework for thinking about contexts of our own canon debates than we have had. Its bumping our attention from nineteenth century decadence to seventeenth century pundits is a welcome call for those with an interest in history or in contemporary social critics and their political agendas.

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