We customarily recognize a transhistorical polarity between realistic and symbolic or “idealistic” modes of representation, according to the respective primacy of the referent or the sign. At the symbolic pole, the esthetic object is grasped by the audience as transparent to its meaning within its cultural context; conversely, a realistic representation presents its object as a contingent source of new information presumably independent of this context. Ernst Gombrich has described the gradual and by no means linear advance of representational realism throughout the history of Western art, much as Erich Auerbach has done in the literary realm.

The fact that the symbolic object is already the embodiment of the sign whereas the “realistic” object is still being examined for its appetitive qualities might be taken to suggest that realism precedes symbolism. But although there are celebrated examples of realism in early cave art (along with a much greater number of highly schematic representations), both our intuition and the historical evidence suggest rather that realism is a late mode, that far from reflecting a preliminary examination of the appetitive qualities of the object, it derives from a second look that follows its sacralization by the sign and is a part of the movement by which the object, once its inaccessibility has been thus established, is freely reinvested with appetitive value in anticipation of the sparagmos that follows. The phenomenon of pornography, which thrives on “lifelike” detail, confirms this interpretation. Or if we take as our example the realism of a portrait, the more precise its details the more “consumable” it is, the more it provokes a visceral reaction, whether of desire or of repulsion, in contrast with a more idealized portrait to which our reaction is largely determined by our cultural knowledge of its subject. Whereas the first look at the object, which leads to the aborted gesture of appropriation that subsequently becomes the sign, is one of prehuman appetite, the second look is an appetitive evaluation liberated from the danger of mere appetite by the sign. The realist attitude is one of an attentive but superior will, able to see the object “objectively,” without falling under its spell.

But because realism is concerned with evaluation, not appetitive satisfaction, it tends to turn the sacrificial nature of the scene into a critique of the society that exacts the sacrifice. Realism has a faintly revolutionary taint, as reflected in the slogan of “socialist realism”: to display the real is to refuse its absorption by the symbolic-ritual framework of society and consequently to contest this framework as incapable of absorbing it. The rise of realism as an esthetic movement occurs at a time when the ritual framework of society has been undermined by the secularizing force of the market system. That the framework of ritual laws could be replaced by the voluntary exchanges of the market in what we call consumer society is hinted at in the first great realist novel, Madame Bovary—and caricatured in prescient fashion in that great misunderstood satire, Huysmans’ A rebours.

Realism must be distinguished from the category of popular art, which, in contrast to high art focused on the moment in which the central object is renounced and obliges us to identify with the central figure as victim, belongs to the moment of appetitive satisfaction that coincides with the sacrificial violence of the sparagmos.


The literary term realism originated in France in the wake of the secular disillusionment that followed the failure of the 1848 revolution and the instauration of the Second Empire. What was particularly galling to the liberal bourgeoisie after 1851 was that in destroying the Republic Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had been defending their own class interests. In contrast with the Second Republic’s unsustainable attempts at inter-class harmony, as exemplified by the Ateliers nationaux that were supposed to provide work for the unemployed, the Emperor’s electoral semi-despotism provided the necessary framework for France’s transformation into a modern industrial society. The political emasculation of the bourgeoisie was prerequisite to its economic success.

The failure of romantic politics exposed the illusion of romantic art, the seamless communion of artist and audience exemplified by Victor Hugo’s cry in the Preface of Les contemplations: “Insensé qui crois que je ne suis pas toi!” [“Foolish one who thinks that I am not you!”] The literary forms that corresponded to this historical irony were the ironic “Satanism” of Baudelaire’s poetry and the equally ironic nihilism of Flaubert’s prose. The choice to place on the scene of representation an object that bore its contingency on its face reflected the postromantic emphasis on the arbitrariness of the will of the esthetic creator who could no longer depend on the Hugolian communion of souls. At the same time, contingency invested the central object with a value as an object of consumption.

Duranty’s journal Le réalisme panned Madame Bovary on its appearance in 1857—and had it still been around in 1869, it would probably have treated L’éducation sentimentale even worse. Flaubert never considered himself a realist; his fascination was not with the realists’ mediocre reality but with the revelatory aspect of the real that he referred to as la bêtise, embodied in objects of egregious contingency, including the bizarre historical products of the human imagination, whose “reality” for us is guaranteed by the fact that we could never have conceived them ourselves. The gargoyles and other grotesqueries of the middle ages do not carry the message of raw contingency that we find in Flaubert’s realism; they are figures of the devil whose antithetical reality Victor Hugo fancied he could synthesize with that of God, whereas there is no conceivable synthesis between la bêtise and an authorial consciousness external to the text—which Flaubert claimed to inhabit like God in his creation. The effet de reel described in Barthes’ famous essay is not so much a metonymic detail as a detail irreducible to any figure—except that of the non-figurality of the “fetishistic” object of consumption. The ironic presence of this contingent real that reaches its paroxysm in the en-soi of Sartre’s 1938 La nausée begins as an analogy to the contingency of the industrial capitalism of the Second Empire.

It was inevitable that one day Flaubert would be credited despite himself as the chief “realist” novelist. The underlying attitude toward reality expressed in every aspect of his writing from his stylistic innovations (free indirect discourse, narration in the imperfect tense, anti-dramatic sentence patterns such as ending with a long adverb…) to his alternative fondness for “orientalist” excess and ironically underplayed contemporaneity—the twin modalities of bêtise—is the foregrounding of the contingency of the real. Lesser writers such as Zola—who always acknowledged his Flaubertian ancestry—and the Goncourts—who did not—would subsequently associate this contingency with a class-based social critique, whether or not they endorsed a historical eschatology—”socialism”—predicated on this critique.

What for Flaubert is an ontological offense that we can escape only through art, the lesser realists saw as a social problem resolvable by politics—or by religion. It was the Empire’s decline and fall in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that inspired Zola to interpret its economic salvation of the bourgeoisie as its political (and moral) damnation; Zola built his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series around the historical conceit that the Second Empire, whose necessity Flaubert accepted (and to which he quietly expressed his loyalty—Sartre dedicated nearly an entire volume of L’idiot de la famille to the analysis of Flaubert’s decision to accept the Emperor’s award of the Légion d’honneur) was the carrier of the “disease” of capitalist greed and that the defeat of 1870 was not merely a punishment but a purgation. The Flaubertian ontology of post-1848 French literary realism opposed the radical contingency of the real to a transcendental source of meaning that becomes increasingly explicit in Flaubert’s own work, moving from the abstract locus of the authorial position in Madame Bovarythrough Frédéric Moreau’s pre-novelistic “C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur!” [“That was our best moment!”] inL’éducation sentimentale to the Christian themes of the Trois contes and La tentation de Saint-Antoine and finally the authorial copying of Bouvard et Pécuchet. The figures of transcendence that appear in all Flaubert’s works after 1870 are ascetic in the extreme: a wormy stuffed parrot, a leper, the head of John the Baptist. What Flaubert’s career tells us about realism is that its focus on contingency hides an appeal to transcendence, one realized in Zola’s post-Rougon-Macquart-Second-Empire utopias, Maupassant’s evolution toward “spirituality,” and Huysmans’ toward a strongly anti-material—and antisemitic—Catholicism. Barbey’s quip that the author of A rebours would have to choose between la bouche d’un pistolet et les pieds de la Croix [the barrel of a pistol and the feet of the Cross] could be applied to the entire realist movement, and to quite a few symbolist poets as well. The obsession with the contingent real as a sign of disenchantment can best be overcome by a return to the old ritual values, which in the late nineteenth century offered an increasingly institutional—and political—respite from the market. Flaubert’s final religion of copying looks forward to Proust rather than to Huysmans or Léon Bloy.


André Bazin among others pointed out that the cinema was less a product of technological advance than its goal. Recording and reproducing reality, with mechanical fidelity whenever possible, was a 19th-century passion, and cinema would become the ultimate expression of this passion. The public film spectacle was an extension of a trend begun with the romantic theater of putting the entire world on stage, including by the end of the century sea battles in water tanks, false mountains, and teams of horses and camels. Lumière’s publicly shown 50-second vignettes were for the most part documentaries of everyday reality, in contrast with Edison’s peepshows, filmed in his “Black Maria” studio, which showed “private” acts, including sexual ones, as befitted their private mode of presentation.

Not long after the invention of cinema, the emergence of the one- to two-hour cinematic narrative that we have come to calla film demonstrated that the temporality of the moving picture makes it an intrinsically narrative mode and consequently, like theater, an appropriate vehicle for a public spectacle. What concerns us here is how this form of spectacle comes to be associated with realism, particularly in the French tendency of the late 1930s known as poetic realism, the first of only two well-known filmic movements (the other is postwar Italian “neo-realism”) to be designated by this charged word.

More akin to Zola than to Flaubert, Marcel Carné presents his fallen world with dead seriousness. (For simplicity’s sake, I refer to Carné as the auteur of his films, although they also bear the mark of screenwriter Jacques Prévert.) Le jour se lève(1939), generally acknowledged as the last and greatest poetic-realist film, begins with Gabin/François’ murder of the sinister Valentin, the corrupter of the ingénue Françoise’ The action remains confined within the room in which François locks himself for the duration of the film, preparing the end by recalling his story in a series of three flashbacks, after which, as the police close in, he shoots himself through the heart. As in the earlier Le quai des brumes (1938), the source of the fictional world’s corruption is defined as a vaguely Semitic figure of evil, but the revelation embodied in this definition has now become the plot of the film. In Le quai, Gabin-Jean kills Zabel to liberate his beloved, Zabel’s ward Nelly, from her tutor’s increasingly explicit sexual advances; the murder has no causal connection with the hero’s death at the hand of a young gangster in the concluding scene that follows. In contrast, the fact that Le jour begins with the murder proclaims its lack of purgative effect. Valentin’s death not only prefigures François’ own, it does nothing to liberate Françoise, who in her final appearance in the film, while declaring her futile love for François, cries that she is unable to move.

Le jour, with its circular structure and despairingly ironic conclusion–the sun rises through the vapor of tear-gas on François’ body lying among the debris of his room, as we hear the ringing of his alarm clock–seems designed to demonstrate that the ordinary desires of ordinary people are incapable of founding a praxis, even a “tragic” one. The only meaningful temporal progression–the only possible plot–is then the discovery of this fact. François has no dreams of transcending his own sphere; all he wants from life is to marry Françoise, who is emphatically designated as his female equivalent–not only do they share this archetypal French name and its “name-day,” they are both foundlings raised in a public orphanage. François’ desires are not the illusions of Emma Bovary or even Frédéric Moreau; they are the fundamental tropisms that make human existence possible, rendered impotent by the corrupting effect of Valentin.

Realism after Flaubert–that of Zola and the Goncourts, and later of Huysmans (not to speak of “decadent” writers such as Pierre Louys or Octave Mirbeau)–is full of perverse sexuality. One could make the case that the genre that begins withGerminie Lacerteux and Thérèse Raquin is modeled on perverse sexuality. Our interest in these novels is neither one of straightforward identification nor of mere curiosity; to the extent that we become attached to their characters, we are attracted to their very degradation. In Le jour, more explicitly than in Le quai, the Gabin persona is perversely attracted to the figure of sexual evil. Several times François tells Valentin to go away, but he never does; in the scene in the bar (where Valentin falsely claims to be Françoise’s father), it is rather François who leaves. In the final flashback sequence, when Valentin invades the hitherto private space of François’ room–he is the only person in the film to do so–the latter, unable to shake off his corrupting presence, shoots him in a rage, half-realizing that by killing him he is also killing himself.

Yet in contrast to novels’ complicity with their hypocrite lecteur, the images of sexual desire that Carné offers the spectator are devoid of perversity. We first see Françoise at the sand-blasting plant carrying a bouquet of flowers, and share François’ pleasure at this virginal sight. We later hear from Clara that Françoise has been intimate with Valentin, but in their only brief contact in the film, Valentin cancels their scheduled meeting. Here as elsewhere, Le jour concentrates and intensifies the themes of Le quai. Already Nelly’s image in that film, although scarcely virginal–we know she has been the voyou Lucien’s mistress–is far more respectable than in the Mac Orlan novel from which the film is adapted, where Nelly was the queen of the prostitutes of Montmartre. Whereas Nelly and Jean spend a night together, in Le jour, we see François in bed with Clara, but never with Françoise; there is no suggestion that they have been sexually intimate.

Finding the virgin bride already soiled puts an end to the temporality of romance. But whereas the narratives of literary realism offered us desires we could share only perversely, Carné shows us as real the images of sexual beauty that for Emma and Frédéric are illusory (although Emma’s own sexual beauty is taken seriously enough), for Zola’s characters, sinful, and that the reader of Germinie is unlikely to conjure up at all. Because poetic realism takes as its theme the impossibility of “normal” desire, it insistently shows us the image of this desire; what is contingent is its non-fulfillment. The iconic immediacy of the image guarantees the normality of François’ original desire and makes plausible the externalization of perversity in the character of Valentin.


Whereas 19th-century realism is understood as the narrative embodiment of the failure of romanticism in both literature and politics, we are accustomed to view poetic realism from a narrower historical perspective: the failure of the Popular Front, the growing threat of Nazism and war are reflected in a cinema of demoralization. Because film is a popular art dependent on appeal to a mass public, the explanation of poetic realism abstracts from esthetic history, implying a direct transference of “attitude” from the political conjuncture to the artwork, with Valentin as a scapegoat for the audience’s resentments.

Modernism is the ultimate statement of the notion that the artist’s vision, rooted in desires more fundamental than language–and consequently than mimesis–is the sole source of authenticity. Unlike his romantic counterpart, the artist no longer desires or anticipates the adherence of the “bourgeois” spectator. What separates modernism from the post-romanticism of which literary realism is a part is that for the latter, the only transcendence of the bourgeois exchange system requires a return, whether ascetically anthropological, sentimentally “pre-industrial,” or traditionally religious, to the origin of this very society, whereas the modernist’s faith in the natural/primitive/Volkisch/proletarian utopia built on the expulsion of bourgeois exchange permits him to give free rein to the expression of desires that the post-Romantic either repressed or experienced as “decadent”: Mallarmé gives way to Apollinaire.

The demonization of Valentin does not merely reflect a popular or mass esthetic; it is a popular inflection of the “socialist” scenic structure of modernism. Carné shares both modernism’s valorization of “instinctive” desire and its contempt for the bourgeoisie; the difference is that he is a popular artist. Thus the object of our “instinct,” which modernism characteristically expresses in elite terms to avoid pleasing the bourgeois audience, takes the form of commonplace romantic imagery (a pretty girl with a bouquet of flowers), whereas the bourgeois is a bogey-man rather than a philistine. In both Le quai and Le jour only the two monsters, Zabel and Valentin, dress and speak as members of the bourgeoisie. The futility of their expulsion, made explicit in the latter film, reflects the simple fact that the bourgeois is indispensable to bourgeois society. The bourgeois is always already present as the father and seducer, and in the time of Nazism it is hard not to see him as the demonized Jew as well, the predecessor of the Christian who defiles his women and his culture before he can get there to protect them. François’ is the story of the modern ego destroyed by its inability to liberate its “proletarian” desires without incurring “bourgeois” corruption. If modernist optimism celebrates the liberation of desire from the constraints of the market and the discontents of “civilization,” its pessimistic mode shows this liberation as impossible, yet without denying its necessity.

The conclusion we are led to concerning the unity of “realism” is that whereas 19th-century realism is founded on Flaubert’s fascinated denunciation of the bêtise of contingency while under the protection of a purely formal esthetic transcendence, the poetic realism of the 30s denounces not bourgeois reality’s contingency but its corruption. What is insisted on as real in the first case is the petit fait vrai, the silly little object that is the typical product of the exchange system; the emphasis in the second is on the power of that very object to reduce transcendent values to venality–thus the little brooch that Françoise gives to François as a unique gift of love he later learns is merely one of dozens offered by Valentin to his conquests. Emma’s consumerism eventually kills her, but the objects she buys are not pernicious in themselves; in Carné’s world, the exchange system pollutes everything that it touches.

Postromantic reality is susceptible to being transfigured in an esthetic, and ultimately a religious gesture of transcendence; modernist reality is not, because both its desirability and its corruption preexist the self. The ironic sunrise that illuminates François’ corpse in his demolished room is the polar opposite of the one that offered Saint Anthony a parting vision of Christ. The source of modernist transcendence lies in a communal energy prior to the self, which the self must be destroyed in order to liberate. We could only have learned the key to our origin by observing the horror of the 20th century attempts to renew the originary event in the political sphere.