The Invisible Code: Honor and Sentiment in Postrevolutionary France: 1814-1848.
One should be wary of history books about subtexts, hidden logic and invisible codes. What is the author's own secret message? It is almost inevitably some contemporary preoccupation. How does he match this with his subject - people who lived before he was born? There is a wicked chance he may be distorting the past here.
William Reddy begins the analysis of his "invisible code of honor and sentiment" by comparing it with the Napoleonic codes of 1804 and 1810. These legal codes abolished privilege, they established the principle of equality in the courts and freedom of contract in the workplace, and they consolidated the "decline in the status of women from a high point of the early 1790s." By contrast, the invisible code, according to Reddy, did virtually the opposite, confirming social condescension in the courts, a rigid hierarchy in the workplace and a dissenting outlet for women in the form of "sentiment."
Reddy's code is built on opposites, creating wisps of Hegelian mist in his analysis. The conflict between "honor" and "sentiment", rationality and emotion, men and women, is its essential feature. But Reddy also identifies two senses of honor, one positive, one negative: the acquisition of rank and what he calls "a state free of shame." Honor, furthermore, was not something one generally talked about; to speak of one's own honor in public implied that one had none, that one had something to be ashamed of.
Hence the great game in nineteenth-century Paris (the book hovers between Paris and Versailles) was to challenge a rival's honor, thus forcing him to defend it within the "public sphere" - an awful dilemma for any self-respecting gentleman. But of gentlemen, there were rather too many because the French Revolution had destroyed the tiny, closed world of aristocracy; honor had become democratic and competition for it was now an intense affair. Post-revolutionary France was a land awash with public insult.
Through much diligent work in the archives Reddy provides examples of this development in three main areas of life. He shows how lawyers played the game in cases of marital separation; the way it was exploited by bureaucrats to keep their government departments in a corrupt sort of order; and the opportunities it provided to hungry newspaper men who were none too concerned about political principle or whatever happened to their victims. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Reddy's argument that honor survived into King Louis-Philippe's liberal world of finance and self-interest gives the book its underlying theme of continuity in change.
And, up to this point, it is an argument that is manifestly true. But it is also obvious. Reddy admits that his analysis contains an element of Entfremdung, of making the self-evident look strange. "Such an effort is essential whenever applying ethnographic method to a social order close to one's own," he tells us. Reddy's ethnographic method is derived from anthropological studies of Brazilians, Western Desert aborigines, and the inhabitants of Micronesian atolls; he cites books on gender history with entfremdisch titles - Gynographs, Tender Geographies, Unnatural Emotion, and Veiled Sentiments.
If Reddy had left all this intellectual baggage at home and simply got on with the story, one could learn something from his work and even have pleasure in reading it. There is, in fact, a great story hidden in here to be told within such settings as rue de Bac, the old market place of Saint-Germain, or the wide decaying avenues of Versailles. Had Reddy, for a moment, put his archives aside, left his air-cooled microfilm reader for an afternoon, and actually strolled through these wonderful places he might have written a grand book. Couldn't those old buildings of Versailles have had an influence on "honor and sentiment" too?
But Professor Reddy does not really approve of stories. In his effort to transform the obvious into strangeness he turns, instead, to postmodern textual criticism; behind the code of honor, he insists, is a literary construct imbued in impressionable young minds by the nineteenth-century teachers of such classics as Cicero, Racine, and Madame de Sevigne. Cicero's Roman Senate oratory provided a rhetoric of insult; Racine's Phedre opposed honor to romantic love and became a model of what should not be talked about in public; Mme de Sevigne defined the "private sphere" behind which women and love should be confined. This "convergence of discursive styles and practical styles of treating honor," states Reddy, riding up a notch or so in strangeness, "rendered it difficult to theorize, even notice, in many contexts." In other words, it was classical literature that made the code of honor invisible.
Contemporary writers of the nineteenth century - again according to Reddy - spread a further veil by putting about the idea that honor belonged to a feudal and monarchical past, while the chief quality of their own modern age was self-interest. Reddy thinks this gave an unjustly poor image of workers, small bureaucrats and struggling journalists. For him, it was not self-interest that caused potential witnesses to hive off in silence after le sieur Mahot, in the Vieux Marche at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, raised a meat cleaver against his screaming wife; they were acting out of family honor. Surnumeraire Jacot-Presset's fawning letters to his superiors in the Ministry of the Interior (the most famously corrupt government department of the July Monarchy) were not, we are told, motivated by self-interest but the gentleman's defence of his and his family's honor. Why did the hack journalist Armand Malitourne defend every regime that came into power for over thirty years? It was, or course, for honor.
The problem is that one could develop the same apologies for the Mafia. Reddy thinks that writers like Balzac, practitioners of a new form of literary satire, simplified reality by finding self-interest everywhere. Reddy himself steers clear of "colorful anecdote" and humor, those distorting "tricks" of the new literature. The greatest fault that he finds with Edmond Texier's 1850 biographical dictionary of contemporary journalists is that its "tone is humorous" - it is "humorous," so it is "idosyncratic." In Texier's work the struggling, disloyal, hypocritical journalist is made an object of ridicule. His honor is publicly insulted. Reddy does not like this at all. Brandishing the grim sword of ethnography, he defends the underdog, the honorable but corrupt journalist.
In recent years the kind of analytical history Professor Reddy practices has also been the subject of much ridicule in the press, and one cannot avoid the thought that it is perhaps here that we find Reddy's own secret message. His explanation for the spread of hack journalism in the 1830s would seem to confirm this. "Potential writers," he remarks, "were available in abundance in this period because the university faculties were expanding enrollment, and educational attainments were becoming somewhat more broadly shared, whereas honorable employments for graduates remained scarce." One gets the point. When Reddy talks of the role of gender in history, or when he finds in the rhetoric of grovelling French bureaucrats a hundred years dead a demand for rights and entitlements, it is the language of late twentieth-century America, and especially academic America, that is speaking, not that of Louis-Philippe's kingdom. Since the 1840s Reddy argues that the code of honor has become evermore invisible. "Affability and lack of ceremony carried the day," he concludes in his final paragraph.
Reddy's own caricature of nineteenth-century plays and novels as mere satires on self-interest is itself a distortion. Balzac, for instance, had a lot to say on honor, sentiment, and the uncomfortable concessions with neighbors that needed to be made through life. One might start with his first novel, Le Peau de chagrin, which was about the kinds of dilemma Reddy discusses. There was more latitude to these nineteenth-century stories, more themes laid open, more ideas hidden than in any of Professor Reddy's enthnographic analysis. And is this actually a study of honor? Or dignity? One kills and maims for honor. One lives and dies with dignity.
One could forgive his narrowness if Reddy wrote like Hugo or Balzac, or if he would just once launch into the sky the intellectual fireworks of a Foucault or a Levi-Strauss.
But he doesn't
Gregor Dallas Anet (Eure-et-Loir)
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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