In Génie du christianisme [Spirit of Christianity] (1802), his attempt to rekindle interest in Christianity after the “godless” century of the philosophes, Chateaubriand counseled a critique des beautés [criticism of “beauties,” of good points], in contrast to the more traditional and less spiritual critique des défauts [criticism of defects]. Criticism, in this perspective, was to help the reader to appreciate the work rather than merely evaluate it. This paradoxical understanding of critique as a positive activity may be said to be the foundation of modern literary criticism, an activity associated in England with such as Matthew Arnold and later T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis, which consisted in choosing a canon of works to read and justifying one’s choice. Today, after a generation dominated by demystification’s ideological version of the critique des défauts, can we find our own critique des beautés? Or in the terms of this column, as presented in Chronicle 99, can we formulate a critique of love to oppose to the critique of resentment?
In originary terms, love and resentment are relationships to difference. Resentment attacks (questions, suspects) difference because it sees it as invidious: the other’s difference from me is a sign of his greater proximity to the center and its power, prestige, wealth, etc. Resentment sees only the “vertical” component of difference, that which distinguishes between greater or less sacrality.
Love, in contrast, sees difference in “horizontal” terms, as a non-hierarchical source of value. The essential symmetry of the love-relationship is founded on openness to difference, beginning from the sexual difference that is the foundation of the couple in the first place. The woman’s childbearing role and all it entails requires of the man a particular care, in addition to the couple’s other differences and similarities, and for which it provides a non-hierarchical model. I am not in competition for the center with the one I love; on the contrary, I freely choose to grant significance to (“sacralize”) her desires and needs as a source of meaning for my own life, knowing in principle that she has made the same symmetric choice with regard to mine. Any differences in power, prestige, etc., between us are accepted without envy along with the others in the service of our relationship.
In the sphere of cultural, including textual, criticism, the critique of resentment is demystification. The literary work purports to liberate its reader by letting him participate freely in its imaginary universe. The demystifier then shows that this liberation is spurious–that, on the contrary, the reader is being surreptitiously made to participate in his own enslavement by assimilating a discourse the implicit presupposition of which is the domination of the dominated by the dominator. In the deconstructive variant, the implementation of this presupposition in the discourse itself is shown to be paradoxical, since its very immanence in the text as a “natural” truth is belied by its transcendental construction as a denial of the “unnatural.” At its best, deconstruction is not mere demystification, but it tends to be pulled toward the familiar gender, race, ethnicity dichotomies and end up as a weapon in the war on patriarchy, hegemony, etc.
In contrast, the key to a critique of love is the notion of empowerment. The reader’s imaginary liberation is not merely a vacation from reality; the pleasure in reading a literary work is the assimilation of what are ultimately new ethical possibilities, and the greater the work, the more significant and wide-reaching these possibilities. The critique of love may be defined as an interpretation of the work that elucidates these implicit possibilities, making explicit the liberating function of the text. In the case of the great works of the past, this is tantamount to writing cultural history, since the liberating function of such works lies in their ability to offer new models of behavior to their readers; the more significant the work, the more these models were overtly present in their social context. But the more subtle task of this form of criticism is to find, in less obvious cases, implicit models that may have reached public implementation only through the route of other works, or perhaps not (yet) at all. That a work has not had a direct social impact is no reason not to carry out this critique; empowerment however virtual remains a cultural datum whose potential impact has not been lost.
As a foretaste of the method this kind of critique requires, here are a few examples of this approach from previous Chronicles:
- My remarks about Manon Lescaut in Chronicle 17 emphasized the Chevalier’s love-relationship to Manon not, as has tended to be the case since feminist critics got hold of this work, in the context of Manon’s destruction and death, but as a living relationship. The Chevalier’s claim to his clerical friend Tiberge that Manon is a more effective divinity than the Christian God can be contested from within Christian theology itself–Christianity is after all the religion that tells us to love God in the human–but his example is nevertheless of importance as a model, not of polemical extravagance, as might have appeared at the time, but of modern attitudes and practices of love. I am sure a considerable percentage of men and women today would agree with the Chevalier, and surely a far lower percentage would agree with Tiberge than at the time of the book’s publication in 1733.
- Similarly, my brief comments on Madame Bovary in Chronicle 99 emphasize the semiotic richness of consumption rather than following Emma to her demise. Everyone makes fun of Emma for borrowing her models of desire from books, but they forget that she also constructs these models in a more active fashion from the imagery of her fashion magazines, and above all, they forget that their own lives are largely spent doing the same thing. One does not escape mimesis by denouncing it in others; one never escapes it at all, but one learns to master it by admitting to and understanding it, and Flaubert’s novel is a means to such an understanding.
- I can also give the example of the extraordinary pregnancy of Hamlet’s behavior (I believe I touched on this in an earlier Chronicle, but haven’t been able to locate it). His delay may be attributed, as by Girard, to a lack of mimetic intensity, but the danger of that interpretation is that it makes Hamlet into Girard’s own figure of the mensonge romantique, indifferent to others’ desires. I think it more productive to see Hamlet as the prototype of the modern homme de ressentiment, and note that when Hamlet first appears in I, ii, he is not yet aware of the Ghost, but sits at the King’s table wearing black, ignoring the proceedings, and showing disrespect for Claudius who is obliged to solicit his attention. This is already a Rousseauean or “romantic” attititude, copied by countless young 19th century bourgeois at their father’s dinner tables. The play as a whole expands on this new behavioral productivity: the dramatic action,avant la lettre like that of En attendant Godot, is one of awaiting. The awaiting mode structures Hamlet’s ironic attitude toward the other characters, whose worldly temporality makes them stand to him in the same relation as Pozzo and Lucky to Vladimir and Estragon; this attitude, more attentive to language than action, is eminently “portable.”
- Finally, my very brief remarks on Ronsard’s “Mignonne” poem in Chronicle 96 attempt to show that even in implementing the well-worn carpe diem seduction theme, the poet is obliged to empower his beloved by separating her consciousness from the flower that is her metaphor and allowing her the free choice to profit from its example.
I will attempt to give further examples of a critique of love in the coming months. But its fundamental principle stands in clear contrast with that of the critique of resentment. Instead of seeing the literary work as ultimately a form of propaganda that denies the freedom of its audience, the critique of love insists that, whatever discourses of domination may lurk behind the literary work, its effective operation on its audience is one of emancipation rather than enslavement.
Such a criticism has no clear political agenda, although the practitioners of demystification will no doubt accuse it for that very reason of reinforcing the status quo. But that is not its point at all. On the contrary, as Doug Collins remarked recently, it is the demystifiers who can with far more justification be accused of playing the game of the Establishment, by redirecting creative energies that might be used to enlarge the freedom of society as a whole into the narrow channels of “identity politics” and its resentful cultural agendas. “Repressive tolerance” is a two-edged sword, and it is after all the very ideologues who denounce late capitalism who are the Humanities’ chief beneficiaries of corporate largess in the form of research grants and the like. Follow the money, as Deep Throat was wont to say.
The critique of love is empowering in ways that cannot be predicted precisely because it has no predefined constituency. Those who are liberated as individuals by art, and by love itself, are a far more powerful force for social evolution than the groups of victims that dominate our public consciousness. But we cannot be content merely to note this; some degree of “consciousness-raising” is required. On this too I shall attempt to elaborate in the coming months.