The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature by Franco Moretti

Valerie Sanders relishes this considered study of a quietly worthy class of men

June 27, 2013

Why was Victorianism?” asks Franco Moretti halfway through this investigation of the 19th-century bourgeois protagonist in British and European literature. Not that he then tells us – the question disappears, mown down by a passing chunk of In Memoriam – but it is of course difficult to imagine the bourgeois without the Victorian. Think of the class as it appears in fiction and we conjure the serious, useful, hard-working middle class, as suited to solid prose as they are to their factories and counting houses. Moretti’s purpose, in this short, epigrammatic study of a class that sits awkwardly in the power structure it supposedly influences, is to examine the bourgeois “refracted through the prism of literature”. His contention, by the end, is that after industrialisation the class bifurcates into two ideal types, “the good Bürger and the “creative destroyer”, irreconcilable in their values: “the intra-bourgeois contradiction”, as Moretti calls it, which is where, with Ibsen, he concludes his study.

Of course, as Moretti confirms, “bourgeois” is not a word much favoured by the British, who prefer the term “middle class”. Buttressed by references to cultural critics from Max Weber to Georg Lukács, his study ranges freely over French, Spanish, German and Norwegian literature, as one would expect of a critic acclaimed for his previous work on the European Bildungsroman, another non-English-language term that doesn’t quite match what we find in the prosaic Victorian novel. Here his research is informed by quantitative data on the frequency of word usage retrieved by the Stanford Literary Lab, which in turn drives the structure and methodology of his study as he focuses on key words associated with the bourgeois as a class. These are “useful”, “efficiency”, “comfort”, “serious”, “influence” and “earnest”: a litany of stolid worthiness that Moretti mulls via a distinctive critical technique of his own, forcing the reader to stop and think about the last phrase he just used. Hence, his habit of halting over epigrammatic statements such as “Beyond the horizon”, “Fortune, rationalized”, “The style of the useful”, “A life in the world” and even, sometimes, just one word: “Comfort”.

Why does Crusoe work so hard? With no real incentive to do more than survive, he toils away as if for the sternest of taskmasters

This stylistic habit is such a pervasive feature of the book that it is worth pausing for a moment (as Moretti so often does himself) to question why he sets such store by it. As an investigative tool, it takes us forward incrementally through the argument. Each phrase functions as a staging post where author and reader stop to absorb the resonance of particular words and phrases, rolling them around the tongue, as it were, to savour their full flavour. The single word “comfort” is as good an example as any: a word Moretti revives at the end of the book to describe the modest and harmless aspiration of the bourgeois professional, for “pleasure, as mere wellbeing”. No going off the rails for the solid man of the middle class (and it is mainly men Moretti talks about), as he steadily ingests Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman as his guides to life. The style of the useful, as Moretti argues in relation to Robinson Crusoe, is to move forward prosaically, one step at a time. This is how Crusoe survives on his island, and why it is that so many Victorian novelists tell you more than you need to know, even about the most mundane domestic objects and the humblest social aspirations.

Much of the intellectual pleasure we get from Moretti’s analysis of Robinson Crusoe and Middlemarch derives from this practice of pinning down the essence of bourgeois prose with its straining after particularity, its love of description and “fillers”, where nothing much happens but we read about it anyway. The result, claims Moretti, is often vagueness rather than precision, or precision with more meaning; adjectives that drift from the physical to the ethical, as with words such as “strong” and “dark”, which denote a shift in the moral universe of the middle class. The Victorian novel is full of wordy as well as worthy people, although Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab proves the Victorians no fonder of adjectives than anyone else in the 19th century: it was more the way they used them that changed – “Not description, but evaluation”, to quote another of Moretti’s gnomic phrases. Over and again in this book, the aptness of a summary or smart turn of expression compresses hours of intricate research into a snappy and memorable critical truth.

Moretti’s close reading is especially satisfying in his discussion of Robinson Crusoe, that early expression of bourgeois commitment to hard work. Why, asks Moretti, does Crusoe work so hard? With no one watching him and no real incentive to do more than survive at the most basic level, Crusoe toils away as if for the sternest of taskmasters. Nothing for him is an end in itself but a means to further gain; one achievement enabling another, just as one implement becomes a tool to advance slightly closer towards greater comfort and stability. “Comfort”, as Moretti would say, pausing again to let us savour all the ramifications of a word we normally use unthinkingly. What can comfort mean in a world like Crusoe’s, where enjoyment of daily living might be at best a fleeting pride in small achievements? A few pages later, Moretti surfaces with another incremental discovery: “Comfort, as everyday necessities made pleasant” – or for the bourgeois at home, the satisfaction of surveying his tables and chairs and feeling content.

When we get to Ibsen, the tables and chairs crowd in on his frustrated bourgeois protagonists and drive them over the edge. As Moretti argues, the reign of the bourgeois father is relatively brief, lasting little more than a generation before the uprising of resentful children, like the younger Gradgrinds in Dickens’ Hard Times, demanding bread and circuses instead of the textbook definition of a horse. Moretti’s theory about Ibsen is that his troubled heroes fall into a “grey area” of “intra-bourgeois competition”, where dishonesty prevails in a world of dodgy insurance claims, forged cheques, water pollution, half-truths and shady financial manoeuvres. Being economical with the truth, banking machinations that avoid breaking the law: much of it sounds familiar to our own times, which perhaps prompts the thought implicit at the end of this brief but intensive study – what did the bourgeois ever do for us? Should we be embarrassed by this prosaic phase in our collective history, or should we feel proud of its basically decent heritage?

Moretti answers this question by invoking another key word: “honesty”. The cautious bourgeois may have been ousted by the aggressive poetic destroyer, but on the way European culture was made to confront the methods it employed to gain its mild satisfactions. The Bourgeois makes this class anything but dull: it cleverly strips away the counting-house walls, watch chains and waistcoats to reveal a phase of middle-class history that was at least as anxious and self-scrutinising as its snobbish detractors could wish.

The author

Franco Moretti is Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University and fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin.

He was born in Sondrio in Northern Italy and raised in Rome. “I am Italian, for better or worse. I could say I am European, in the sense that my intellectual world is a patchwork of European ideas - mostly German and French, then Italian, with English mostly as an object of study - but that would be bombastic,” he suggests.

Mostly, he says, “I live in San Francisco, with my wife Teri and my nine-year-old son Kai. But it’s not that simple - Teri is an ER physician who does international medicine, so in the past three years we’ve spent over a year in Dar es Salaam, where she has been directing the first ER residency program in Tanzania. There may be more travelling in our future.”

While he finds San Francisco’s “hills and fog and the Golden Gate” pleasant, he contends that it is “a small, provincial town, with a wildly exaggerated sense of itself; now overrun by baby millionaires who dream of retiring at 35. I find it tedious and puerile.”

Had he the opportunity to live elsewhere, he observes, it would be “Berlin, because of its theatre and music. Or Paris, because of its whites and greys. Rome. London. Sao Paulo. Barcelona.”

“My parents were both teachers - classicists, one in high school, the other at the university. They believed in culture, and from them I learned intellectual seriousness. But the key influence was my maths teacher in middle school - Emma Castelnuovo, the only genius I have ever met. She was capable of joining intuition and reasoning, and taught me the beauty of clarity. I wanted to be a physicist, but I just wasn’t good enough at maths. Was I a studious child? Yes, but in a banal way: I did my homework quickly, dutifully and well, then went off to play soccer, or to the movies. I had no intellectual passions until I got to the university. Before that, I was a very good, very banal student.”

He cannot recall the first work of English literature that struck him as wonderful or significant. “No. I remember War and Peace, Buddenbrooks, Lost Illusions; and Baudelaire and Brecht. English, no; Shakespeare, but this came later, at university, especially Hamlet.”

Asked to recommend favourite works of Italian literature that may not be known to readers outside the country, Moretti opts for Beppe Fenoglio’s Una questione privata, “the best story of the Resistenza, a novella that mixes private and public in a striking way”, and Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana, “a great comic novel about Rome. Unfortunately, these two books are both written in a very peculiar language (with a strong English slant in Fenoglio, and a mix of local dialects in Gadda), so the translations don’t work very well.”

Moretti attended the University of Rome as an undergraduate. Of the Italian university sector’s current fortunes and discussions about the need for reform, he observes: “Reform has already come to Italian universities, combining the worst of the national culture (a morbid passion for bureaucratic absurdity, and the worst of the rest (the British idea of weighing scholarship as if it were cast iron). The result is grotesque.”

The methods of literary analysis for which Moretti is known are seen by many to be emblematic of the potential of the digital humanities. “For me, digital humanities means three things: new, much larger archives; new, much faster research tools; and a (possible) new explanatory framework. The archives and the tools are there to stay; they are important but not intellectually exciting. What appeals to me is the prospect of a new explanatory model - a new theory and history of literature. If digital humanities is not this…well, it’s ok, but not much. And at present we are still very far from providing a genuinely new theory or history of literature. Speaking for myself, the only intellectual novelty to which I feel I have contributed is the lab-like environment created with a handful of graduate students and a few colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab: a way of working where individualities recede towards the background, and the experiment itself moves to the fore. This has been a fresh, egalitarian and incredibly stimulating experience.”

Asked if fellow academics continue to find his methods controversial, or have largely decided that it is no longer appropriate to criticise them, Moretti responds: “Well, most of them still don’t know the approach exists. And they criticise, they criticise, don’t worry…often quite violently. But I don’t complain: if you are trying to change literary study, those who like it as it is will naturally defend it strongly. The problem is not the antagonism, it’s the sloppiness, even laziness, of many attacks, where the critic clearly has merely looked at a few pages, or twists a sentence in a fraudulent way. That approach I have no respect for.”

His non-scholarly pastimes focus on food: “I like to cook for friends. I’m a decent cook, no more; but I’m so happy when I cook that I prepare a lot of stuff, and I stay happy during dinner and beyond.”

Moretti’s younger brother, Nanni, is an acclaimed film director. Asked if he envies his brother’s wide audience, he responds: “Let me answer in two parts. I like to explain what is, and the idea of inventing worlds that don’t exist has always struck me as odd; something one might do for one’s child, but for no one else. So, in that respect I have no jealousy at all. But I would have liked to be able to write for a larger public; I have tried - writing short pieces for Il manifesto, for instance, or the New Left Review - but I am not good at it; the pieces are ok, but scholastic; like academic essays, only very very short.”

Is it lonely being a Marxist in the US?

“No,” Moretti says.

Karen Shook

The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature

By Franco Moretti
Verso, 224pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781781680858 and 83057 (e-book)
Published June 2013

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