Printer Friendly

Paris Fin De Si[grave{e}]cle. Culture et politique.

Paris Fin De Si[grave{e}]cile. Culture et politique. By Christophe Charle (Paris: [acute{E}]editions du Seuil, 1998. . 320pp. 150 FE).

Magazine Litt[acute{e}]raire recently devoted an issue to Pierre Bourdieu, "l'intellectuel dominant."' While the magazine strikes a skeptical note on the question of Bourdieu's actual dominance within French intellectual life, there can be little question that he rules the pages of Christophe Charle's social history of literary and intellectual life in fin de siecle Paris. Charle deploys Bourdieu's conceptual apparatus-the "champs" ("field"),cultural capital, strategies of domination--to "explore, by disjointed but convergent approaches, diverse aspects of this unique moment of a city ancient but nonetheless new, temple of different national memories, temporary shelter of what one designates as 'modernity,' but also the gathering point of all migrations and all exiles"( 12). The premise unifying his kaleidoscopic explorations is that Paris's febrile cultural activity was driven by the city's power to attract both foreign and provincial intellectuals, which created a "cultural space where the struggle for surv ival ... placed all producers of symbolic goods in a climate of extreme tension"(12).

Charle offers some valuable insights into the social setting within which intellectuals waged their symbolic struggles, beginning with an illuminating comparison between two cultural metropoles, Paris and Berlin, cities that he characterizes respectively as an "heir" and a "parvenu." He shows convincingly that Paris retained its cultural hegemony, but that it attracted French provincial and foreign intellectuals and artists more by its heritage and fame than through new investments in education and research, measures in which the new German capital far outstripped it. He proceeds to analyze what he calls the "parallel structuration" of the "intellectual field" and Parisian "social space." He argues that the location of specific literary institutions and of writers' residences within the socially stratified quartiers of Hausmann's Paris was one of the concrete ways by which writers gained an intuitive sense of their "position in the field, oriented themselves in the space of conflicts, and situated themselves by relationship to diverse factions of the dominant class"(49). Interesting as this excursion in cultural geography is, it leads to some rather unsurprising observations: The "dominant" writers lived in wealthier quartiers, while the avant-garde artists-"the most dominated"-- inhabited poorer neighborhoods(65). Between these extremes, the naturalist novelists tended to live in middling quartiers, thus occupying a symbolically inferior position compared to opponents like the "psychological" novelist Paul Bourget. Charle traces this disparity to social circumstances, namely that the psychologues' own social backgrounds and familial connections with Paris gave them greater access to the dominant classes. However, Charle does not in fact substantiate this by exploring in detail the social backgrounds of naturalists and psychologues. A table of origins does not help, given that only one of the three psychologues listed actually had a Parisian youth(80). Moreover, Charle's adoption of a scientific, quantifying ton e appears somewhat misplaced. What does it mean, for example, to speak of "the majority of naturalists" when there is no sense of the numbers involved? If he means to refer to the group around Emile Zola, then he is basing a quantitative claim on a population of, perhaps, six.

Stratified as the terrain of Paris was, Charle emphasizes that Paris was also the site of mixing, transgression and the effacement of cleavages (85). He attempts to illustrate this through the suggestive figure of the "homme double." Such figures, he argues, were the culture brokers of their age, operating with equal ease in Paris's exclusive social and intellectual networks and in the impersonal cultural space opened by an expanding, commercialized and increasingly differentiated literary sphere. The hommes doubles generated considerable resentment among cultural producers, because their ability to accumulate positions as editors, critics and owners of publishing enterprises gave them tremendous power as arbiters of taste. Charle claims that writers had either to accept these gate-keepers or "double" themselves in order to establish their independence. In part two of the book, Charle examines the efforts of Hippolyte Tame, Charles Seignobos and L[acute{e}]eon Blum to move independently within the increasing ly differentiated and mediated literary field.

These central chapters, as well as chapters on Emile Zola, Paul Bourget and the first generation of socialist normaliens, offer some interesting and valuable discussions of the intellectual life of fin de si[grave{e}]cle Paris. However, Charle's interpretive finesse is encumbered by the apparatus of Bourdieu's sociology. Regarding the literary field as little more than a circuit of real and symbolic capital, Charle evidently perceives in culture only the struggle between "dominators" and "dominated," in the careers of cultural figures only so many "strategies" to "conquer" the literary field or to accrue cultural capital. How useful are these categories? One can easily accept the notion that material and symbolic goods are distributed in accordance with the division between the cultural center and the cultural periphery. That is presumably what Charle means when he speaks of the avant-garde as "dominated." However, this term requires careful qualification. After all, avant-gardism involved a significant elem ent of personal choice. Even Charle implies this when he notes that once the strain of the avant-garde became too heavy for the penniless Teodor de Wyzewa he sought more lucrative outlets, whereas the independently wealthy Gustave Kahn could remain in the vanguard despite the absence of remuneration. Charle's failure to explore how personal decisions qualify the nature of domination within the cultural domain points to the most dissatisfying facet of the book. He promises to approach intellectual figures as "products of an enterprise that was half-conscious, half-unconscious, partly willed, partly born of the circumstances and structures of the intellectual field" (17). In practice, however, Charle overrides this reasonable and balanced approach because in the last appeal every change in the paths of the authors he studies is traced back to changes in the "field." Indeed, Charle systematically devalues the intentionality of historical actors, as when he dismisses "personalized," that is "biographical or intel lectual," analysis of Taine's increasing political engagement after 1870 in favor of "the principal reasons [ldots] those related to transformations of the contemporary intellectual field"( 118-19).

This methodological preference for the putatively objective and impersonal impairs Charle's readings of texts and his understanding of intellectual debates, while it quickly conditions the reader to realize that every question about development, change, and motive is just another gate opening onto the cultural field. When motives do surface, Charle immediately labels them "strategies," thereby reducing intentionality to a functional operation within the field. In the case of Tame, whom Charle presents as the first "total intellectual," every shift in his career is reduced to a strategy to gain power and influence. As for Zola, Charle judges that his literary strategies failed to gain him favor among the dominant classes, as if Zola's crusading efforts on behalf of the wretched and oppressed or his radical republicanism were not expressions of a moral choice, a conscious renunciation of the leading values of the dominant classes. In truth, the decisions of Zola and Tame, often made against the current of fash ionable opinion, reveal that such an instrumentalist approach is inadequate to the complexities of cultural analysis.

Charle's book is animated by a desire to combat a "certain literature of complaisance, an edifying history" (275). Though he does not name works, presumably he has in mind a tendency either to censure the fin de si[grave{e}]cle for its pessimism or to be nostalgic for the public engagement of its intellectuals. Charle has significant things to say on both counts. He discovers behind the familiar patina of Weltschmerz a cultural revolution and a deepening of democratic impulses, and he argues convincingly that the possibilities of the public intellectual in our own fin de si[grave{e}]cle are by no means exhausted. This kind of attempt to demystify intellectuals and artists by relating them to objective social processes is in itself neither misguided nor new. In that sense, the militancy of Charle's methodological approach is somewhat puzzling. Few intellectual historians would defend an older form of Geistesgeschichte that abstracted ideas from context, and few would dispute the effort to bring intellectual h istory into significant dialogue with social and political history. Of course, there is a productive discussion about how that desirable goal is best achieved. However, Charle's work underscores the limitations that ensue when an intellectual historian systematically places the objective above the subjective, the instrumental above the expressive, context above text, the reductive attempt to assign "laws"(17) to intellectual life above the play of interpretive complexity.


(1.) Magazine Litt[acute{e}]raire, no. 369 (Octobre 1998), pp. 18-70.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Breckman, Warren
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans.
Next Article:The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History.

Related Articles
Oeuvres poetiques III.
Pre-Histoires: Textes troubles au seuil de la modernite.
De la 'Satura' a la Bergerie: Prosimetre pastoral en France la Renaissance et ses modeles.
Introduction a la langue francaise suivie d'une grammaire (1531).
La France-Amerique (XVIe-XVIIIe siecles): Actes du XXXVe colloque international d'etudes humanistes, 1994.
A haute voix: diction et prononciation aux XVIe et XVIIe siecles. Actes du colloque de Rennes (1996).
Montaigne's Annotated Copy of Lucretius: A Transcription and Study of the Manuscript, Notes, and Pen-marks.
L'identite politique de Lyon: entre violences collectives et memoire des elites 1786-1905.
Le college de Dormans-Beauvais a la fin du Moyen Age: Strategies politiques et parcours individuels a l'Universite de Paris (1370-1458).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters