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By way of an epilogue.

1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been praised and blamed for so many of the developments of the modern world, that it would do no great harm to lay another one at his door, and to begin this brief epilogue with a discussion of an as yet unacknowledged aspect of his thought: his mythographic imagination. When in his First Discourse the uprooted Genevan attacks the moral value of the great historical centers of Western culture, he clearly has in mind, as a countervailing ideal, the rugged simplicity of Sparta; but behind Sparta he is remembering Geneva, the nostalgically recollected Geneva of his childhood in the unassuming artisan district where his father had been a clockmaker. Past and present merge in the thought of this peripatetic and solitary figure, and in their fusion accumulate proliferating layers of meaning around any one single event. Similarly, when the feminization of culture (as distinguished from feminism) introduced by the predominance of the Parisian salon threatened to undermine the manly virtues of an heroic literature, Rousseau objects because he once again recalls the divided labors among men and women in the Geneva of his youth, which division becomes hypostatized in his mind into the much larger mythic and complementary Male/Female polarities that are sustaining of human existence.

There is little need to point out that in almost every instance of his later life Rousseau was rejected by the real Geneva (the lukewarm reception of his Second Discourse dissuaded him from settling there in 1755-56, and it dismayed him that Protestant Geneva followed the lead of Catholic Paris in banning, confiscating, and burning his books in 1762--a double whammy which in this country would be similar to books being banned in Boston and New York some forty years ago). At the same time, and even after the edict against him and his works, he was adopted, feted, and lionized by the Parisian culture he pretended to deplore. Like many of the counter-cultural figures of our own day, he made his living by biting the hand that fed him (yet, in one of the strange paradoxes of modern culture, the bitten hand seemed to beg for more) and by idolizing the culture that had changed so markedly from the one he had created in his mind.

To say that he was conflicted is to turn understatement into an offense. However, out of the turbulent disruptions and contradictions of his life and thought, out of his various own emotional needs and projections, Rousseau was able to bring to events a multi-layered responsiveness that signaled a truly mythographic imagination--an early indication of the romantic and modern tendency, in the absence of the grand but dismantled Christian eschatology, to invest the events of contemporary life with a deeper, if darker, understanding.

Two instances provide even further evidence of this hunger that seems to drive Rousseau's imagination. One (like many another appealing insight it is consigned to a footnote) occurs in his famous letter to d'Alembert. Still stuck on Geneva, he takes strong and lengthy objection to his former friend's article on Geneva in the seventh volume of the Encyclopedie (1757). More particularly he offers strenuous resistance to the suggestion that the Genevan authorities should license public theaters (an obvious insertion in the article that Rousseau suspected--and rightly so--to be inspired by Voltaire's personal agenda). Eager to demonstrate the deleterious effects such an innovation would have on Geneva's traditions and institutions, he launches into a defense of that city's male drinking clubs, and the obvious advantages to be had from gender-based divisions of labor and, at times, outright segregation of the sexes. Yet, in perhaps the most beautiful pages of the polemic, he supports his vision of Male/Female polarity with a moving recollection of a childhood experience (which I quote in full):

I remember having been struck in my childhood by a rather simple entertainment, the impression of which has nevertheless always stayed with me in spite of time and variety of experience. The regiment of Saint-Gervais had done its exercises, and, according to the custom, they had supped by companies; most of those who formed them gathered after supper in the St. Gervais square and started dancing all together, officers and soldiers, around the fountain, to the basin of which the drummers, the fifers and the torch bearers had mounted. A dance of men, cheered by a long meal, would seem to present nothing very interesting to see; however, the harmony of five or six hundred men in uniform, holding one another by the hand and forming a long ribbon which wound around, serpentlike, in cadence and without confusion, with countless turns and returns, countless sorts of figured evolutions, the excellence of the tunes which animated them, the sound of the drums, the glare of the torches, a certain military pomp in the midst of pleasure, all this created a very lively sensation that could not be experienced coldly. It was late; the women were in bed; all of them got up. Soon the windows were full of female spectators who gave a new zeal to the actors; they could not long confine themselves to their windows and they came down; the wives came to their husbands the servants brought wine; even the children, awakened by the noise, ran half-clothed amidst their fathers and mothers. The dance was suspended; now there were only embraces, laughs, healths, and caresses. There resulted from all this a general emotion that I could not describe but which, in universal gaiety, is quite naturally felt in the midst of all that is dear to us. My father, embracing me, was seized with trembling which I think I still feel and share. "Jean-Jacques," he said to me, "love your country. Do you see these good Genevans? They are all friends, they are all brothers; joy and concord reign in their midst. You are a Genevan; one day you will see other peoples; but even if you should travel as much as your father, you will not find their likes."

(J.-J. Rousseau: Politics and the Arts 137) (1)

From the second instance one can see why the encounter--I call it a "dualism"--between Rousseau and his fallen hero, Voltaire, placed the century at a crossroads: the brilliantly blithe and direct Voltaire and the complex Rousseau for whom things come laden with meanings carried from afar. In "The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar," his famous insertion in Emile, Rousseau was strategically intent on distancing himself as far from the philosophes, to whom he imputed an atheism that Voltaire vehemently denied, as from the devots, whom he considered to be purveyors of false and superstitious belief. While the pages attacking "miracle" so pleased Voltaire that he thought they should be bound in leather, Rousseau's "profession" scandalized Voltaire at that critical meeting-ground of eighteenth-century thought: the debate over the natures of Christ and Socrates. Following a detailed point-by-point comparison, wherein he praises Socrates most fully, Rousseau, always touched by the moral sublimity of the Gospels, concludes, "si la vie et la mort de Socrates sont d'un Sage, la vie et la mort de Jesus sont d'un Dieu." This passage in particular (of course, there were others) threw Voltaire into a rage, and his marginal comments show it: calling it an "extravagant absurdity," he asks, "Have you ever seen gods die, you poor fool?" In another edition of Emile, he once again lashes out marginally, "Qu'est-ce que la mort d'un Dieu," or, in my preferred translation, "What do you know about the death of a God?" (2)

2. These older exchanges and approaches form some of the framing issues for the present volume. One, of course, is the inevitable and happily never-dying tension between those who attend to the wrinkled layers and accretions of meaning that surround the literary event, whether such accumulations be consciously derived and manipulated or not, and those who like Voltaire can ask with a bracing skepticism, "Have you ever seen gods die?" Another issue concerns the relationship between myth and anthropology. While not all myth criticism is anthropological, at their intersections it is clear that they share an interest in that which is both abiding and communal in the instincts, gestures, and presentations of the human spirit.

More specifically, four main areas of anthropological inquiry have been appropriated by literary criticism. All revealing this attention to the abiding and the communal, they are: (1) vegetative and fertility rites; (2) the scapegoat and foundation sacrifice; (3) carnival, festival, and play; and (4) liminal rites of passage. (While rarely adhered to in any pure and unadulterated form, they are all present in various forms and permutations in the preceding essays.) It should be added that while none of these methods in their literary applications has gone uncontested (the Voltairean healthy irreverence fortunately still lives), in their classic formulations they have all yielded and are capable of yielding highly useful and challenging readings and results. For instance, from the many contributions since the publication of Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough, the first edition of which appeared in 1890, one can retrieve a stellar list of authors whose works have had enormous implications for literature. Think of Gilbert Murray, Francis Cornford, Jane Harrison, and Jessie Weston; of Maud Bodkin and Enid Welsford; of C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye; and of Arnold von Gennep, Victor Turner, and Rene Girard. They constitute more than five generations of constant, attentive engagement with the materials and the stuff of anthropological investigation.

It must further be remarked that while not all of the above and their colleagues are in their originals Anglo-American, what is remarkable is the degree of alacrity with which their contributions have been accepted and absorbed by Anglo-American criticism. This in turn leads us to the question this volume must provoke: can an assertion of the same amplitude be as confidently made of the interests and attention of Italian criticism? Has native Italian criticism been as quick and as active in its appropriation of anthropological methods? Olimpia Pelosi's important bibliographical contribution, while still preliminary, serves an admirable purpose and provides some response. It shows that Italian criticism of this century has been far from allergic to anthropological concerns. How could it be? How could the critical literature of Verga, D'Annunzio, Pavese (not to mention Vico) be indifferent to the more fundamental matters that these masters presented in their works? Nevertheless, it must be added that there was some belatedness as well as sparseness in the attention of Italian letters to the abundant anthropological aspects of their literature. Are we perhaps entering here an area of intriguing cultural differentiation--one requiring further exploration?

One can gauge the cultural variation by simply comparing the critical literature devoted to Dante with that devoted to Shakespeare. To be sure, Shakespeare as a popular dramatist was more likely to contain in his works the communal interests that are subjects for anthropological study. Granting that edge, nevertheless, it is quite revealing to see that in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, there are more than two-hundred bibliographical items devoted to Shakespeare cited throughout this volume, including some classic studies such as Enid Welsford's The Fool (1935), C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), Maynard Mack, Jr.'s To Kill a King (1972), and Rene Girard's A Theatre of Envy (1991). (3) While there have been some valuable studies in regard to Dante (again see Pelosi), we would be hard put to come up with a roster of a size and scope equal to that devoted to Shakespeare. And yet the field is quite fertile, ready for cultivation. Think only of the transformations of the golden bough itself, the figures of the scapegoat and the sacrificial martyr, the imagery of the waste land, the liminal experiences of the purgatorial world, and the play worlds of medieval drama.

In itself and in the possibilities it can inspire, this volume will go far toward correcting this evident imbalance and toward promoting further studies in a literature that can so richly afford them.

Claremont McKenna College

(1) Reprinted from Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Politics and the Arts. The Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre, trans. Allan Bloom, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell UP, 1960.

(2) Emile, ou de l'Education, Paris: Garnier, n.d., p. 367, and Voltaire's Marginalia on the Pages of Rousseau, ed. George R. Havens, New York, Haskell House, repr. 1966, p. 118.

(3) True Rites and Maimed Rites, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, Urbana, U of Illinois P, 1992; see also The Scythe of Saturn: Shakespeare and Magical Thinking, Urbana, U of Illinois P, 1994; Naomi Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, London, Routledge, 1996; and C. L. Barber, "The Family and the Sacred in Shakespeare's Development," The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, ed. Richard P. Wheeler; Berkeley, U of California P, 1986.
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Author:Quinones, Ricardo J.
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:2148
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