The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France

Handbags at the dawn of the modern age? There's more to it than that, writes Biancamaria Fontana

August 25, 2011

The subject of The Shock of the Ancient is the literary controversy known as "the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns" that raged in France during the declining decades of Louis XIV's reign, roughly between the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

As Larry Norman points out, the term "quarrel", first adopted by the protagonists themselves, has survived to suggest, misleadingly, the futile disputes of bewigged literati fighting over stylistic niceties. Contrary to this quaint image, it represented a crucial phase in a wider reflection on the nature of modernity that engaged European intellectuals for centuries, stretching from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. It was a debate that, through time, came to invest a variety of fields: not just literature and art but also science, history, religion, philosophy and politics.

In the proud and self-confident France of the grand siècle, while the education of social elites continued to be dominated by the study of Latin and Greek and by the assimilation of classical examples, many intellectuals felt a need to prove that the present generations had finally outgrown the onerous heritage of the ancients.

For writers such as Charles Perrault - the leader of the "moderns" at the French court, entrusted by the Sun King with the celebration of his reign - drawing the line between antiquity and modernity was a necessary premise to the consecration of the newly reshaped and centralised Bourbon monarchy. For Perrault, where the ancients had been pagan, barbarous, superstitious, cruel, licentious and intemperate, the moderns were Christian, civilised, compassionate, decorous, restrained and rational. Their scientific and philosophical innovations, combined with their social and moral achievements, marked a progression that appeared both inevitable and irreversible.

Predictably, the polished surface of Louis XIV's Catholic monarchy hid many hideous cracks and wounds: religious persecution, fanaticism, corruption, financial improvidence and military decline. Similarly, the narrative outlining the progress of rational modernity was riddled with contradictions.

Was the intolerant monotheism of Christians really superior to the tolerant polytheism of the ancients? Was monarchy truly the state form best suited to large modern nations or should one reconsider, in the light of modern aspirations to freedom and equality, the potential of republican regimes? Were men guided in their actions by rationality alone, or were passions and emotions the true springs of all human achievements? Was it right to consider measure and harmony the most effective canons of aesthetic expression?

Norman argues, in particular, that the dismissal of classical works (such as Homer's poems) by stigmatising them as primitive and barbarous, far from diminishing their expressive power, made it even greater.

The "shock" of the ancient in the title of the book refers precisely to the enhanced impact upon the imagination of the moderns, of aesthetic creations that were seen as alien from their "civilised" sensibility. Voltaire, for one, acknowledged this phenomenon when he evoked the analogy between the "deep and dark night" of Elizabethan sensibility, represented by Shakespeare's works, and the Homeric world.

But the author who best illustrates the unresolved tensions between ancient and modern values is, undoubtedly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his writings, Rousseau denounced the licentious customs displayed in classical works, while subscribing enthusiastically to the political ideals of the ancient republics: patriotism, equality and civic virtue. He also produced a devastating critique of modern society, depicted as indifferent, corrupt and oppressive, while giving a modern appeal to the "primitive" powers of nature and spontaneous sentiment.

Norman's detailed and dense reconstruction of the quarrel and its implications is better suited to an academic audience than to the lay reader; even so, his book offers the opportunity to rediscover a seminal episode in modern intellectual history.

The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France

By Larry F. Norman

University of Chicago Press

296pp, £29.00

ISBN 9780226591483

Published 19 April 2011

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