Larry Norman’s account of the cultural debate known as the querelle des anciens et des modernes is revisionist and lean, yet detailed and with depth. Given the historical weight and impact of the querelle, recent scholarly historiography on it is relatively moderate in size. It has usually followed a line that sees the camps of Ancients and Moderns, with winners and losers, reflect the voices of similar, more recent, culture wars: of an authoritarian traditionalism versus that of a modern multiple, flexible acknowledgment of cultural variation, or instead the voice of critical tolerance versus that of a congratulatory modern self-obsession.1 As Norman asks the question, squirreled away in a footnote: “the answers appear so clear-cut, and the scales so tilted, that we are left wondering how serious minds could devote so much time and intellectual energy to the problem, or even dare to maintain a reasonable position in opposition to those presented” (228, n.7). Norman, by contrast, delights in not taking sides, and instead offers a balanced account – yet taking out none of the bite – of what he redefines as not so much a “quarrel” as a “debate driven by compelling yet opposing ideas whose dialectical progress produces new historical and aesthetic paradigms” (49). Doing away with a whole range of cherished stereotypes and teleologies, Norman explores the tactics of this debate, combining smart synopsis with in-depth knowledge of a wide range of materials. As a literary scholar with a fine ear, Norman pays great attention to the different registers, rhetoric, ironies and blind spots with which differing opinions were articulated.
So why should the quarrel have been such a big thing? The “intellectual energy” (6), in his analysis, answers to a crisis where a new historical outlook felt by all parties made the disaggregation and defamiliarization of the classical past a commonly perceived phenomenon, though this did not mean giving up on the notion that there was such a thing as a received canon of knowledge. But this is not the whole story. Around this axis of periodization and historical difference clusters another far-reaching debate: that over the autonomy of poetry and its license to break with the reigning cult of reason, a debate that affected aesthetics as much as morality and politics, and that led ultimately to a whole new conceptualization of the reader as critic. In this new understanding, it was the experience of reading, as a non-rational or not only rational relationship to a text, which was given programmatic value. What is more, it was the sublime, as a recently rediscovered concept with an ancient pedigree, that helped to render literature, especially poetry, exceptional.
Norman’s main strategic move is to show how the Ancient and Modern parties, despite their own rhetoric, were themselves aware of how much they actually shared. Or, as the Ancient party leader Boileau put it in a 1701 letter to his Modern counterpart Perrault (whose poem Le siècle de Louis le Grand had formally triggered the quarrel in 1687), regarding the comparison of modern France and ancient Rome: “You see, Sir, that we do not have a different opinion concerning the esteem that our own nation and our own country merit; but that we are differently of the same opinion” (15). Both parties view the Greco-Roman past as fundamentally foreign (with an enlarged range of foreignness, as a longer antiquity is understood to hold different periods); and both parties are aware that they are, of necessity, part of a modernity that is progressive (especially in the sciences), separate from the past, and qualitatively different. In other words, this period of the mid-seventeenth to the early eighteenth century that is commonly referred to as “(neo-)classical” actually adopts a very critical attitude towards the Greco-Roman past, rather than one marked mainly by a stubborn comfort or a naïve progressivism. The net result is that the rhetorical binaries both camps operated with should not simply be taken at face value. Both parties are as much modern, denying the past self-evident authority, as they are subsets of one overall “Ancient” party that reserves the right to find praiseworthy origins in the ancient tradition, be it imperial Rome, Virgil, or Plato and Socrates as the first ancient moderns, so to speak. In addition, both parties are happy to express an affective relationship with a past that, once estranged, appears in much starker relief. The difference is that “the Ancients embrace a passionate, if transformed, fidelity to their blemished beloved, while the Moderns pursue a therapeutic transformation of it”, along the lines of “I love you, you’re perfect, now change” (37).
The book is divided into three parts of two to five chapters each: I. Historical Sensibility – which outlines the complex interpenetration of temporal categories that came in the wake of the massive recovery project made possible by humanist philological methods. “Ancient” and “modern” were as a result both historically fixed and relative at the same time, doing away with easy binaries. II. The Shock – which traces the experience of reading a new, remote antiquity with its threatening representation of (free-thinking) politics, (pagan) religion, and (alien) morality and society. This experience was highly emotionally coded, ranging from revulsion and shock to admiration and wonder, though always offset by the appeal to critical examination, again on both sides of the fence. III. Aesthetics: The Geometric & the Sublime – in which the debate over the meaning of ‘method’ is linked to the possibility of a new economy of rational and non-rational elements of reading and speaking. A Conclusion looks forward to the even stronger binaries that the mid- and late eighteenth century will create between poetry and philosophy, the creation of a more clear-cut Two Cultures model (arts vs. sciences), and eventually the rise of an again different Romantic notion of modernity that opposes itself to an earlier Classicism.
Norman is very clear that the debate, and its long-lasting consequences, kept being fuelled by actual re-readings of ancient texts: from the 1660s, the value of various ancient tragedians became a bone of contention in the world of theatre; Boileau’s translation of and critical introduction to Longinus’ On the Sublime in 1674 had almost immediate effect; and the last phase of the querelle in the early eighteenth century, which flared up over Anne Dacier’s translation and defense of Homer, was in fact better known as the querelle de Homère. At the same time, Norman is not in the first instance a classicist, but a scholar of early modern French literature and cultural history. Therefore, here is a welcome and timely opportunity to take up his new outline of the quarrel, which was after all the main aim of this book, and delve into more detail about the readings and textual knowledge that were produced by and produced in turn the parameters of the debate. Norman’s fresh road map is an excellent one. Now the ball is back in the classicists’ court. Or maybe the time has come to play doubles.
1. An example of recasting the debate as a recurring phenomenon, sympathetic to the Moderns, is Joan DeJean, Ancients against Moderns. Culture Wars and the Making of a fin de siècle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. An example of a defense of the Ancients’ critical momentum in Alain Finkielkraut, Nous autres, modernes. Paris: Ellipses, 2005; or Marc Fumaroli’s substantial two-hundred page introduction “Les abeilles et les araignées” to the volume of selected texts of the querelle, edited by A.-M. Lecoq, La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Paris: Gallimard, 2001. It seems extraordinary that the most recent full text of Charles Perrault’s eponymous Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences, actually available in pretty much any language, should remain the facsimile print of the original French edition (1688-1697) with a long German introduction by Hans-Robert Jauss, still a classic and full of interest, but dating back to 1964.