Première publication dans Poetics, n° 14, 1985, pp. 199-207.


Our expectations from literary history are contradictory; Normative orientation in the jungle of tradition on the one hand and ‘objective’ knowledge of the changing functions of literature on the other. In order to manage this double problematic the author proposes to replace the illusionary narrative of traditional literary history by a construction taking as a vantage point the historical avant-garde movements.

1. The critique of historical narrative

“Tant que nous pourrons considérer l’histoire (littéraire) comme nous apprenant directement quelque chose sur la littérature, nous n’aurons rien compris à ce dont il s’agit”1

Is there any evidence that we need the type of discourse provided by literary histories? If we look at the histories of national literature written in the nineteenth century, this may be questionable. The authors of these voluminous books are more interested in stabilizing national identity, than in giving us knowledge about the subject matter. There has been valuable criticism of the histories of national literature2; we do not need to repeat it here. Let us cast a glance at the new social histories of literature published during the last two decades in France. There is no doubt, these books provide rich information about the economic, social and political background of the respective period. But nevertheless the reader remains somewhat dissatisfied with these works. The reason is, that, often it is hard to know how the author has chosen his historical material. To put it in other terms, the guiding principle of the historical account is not transparent. The reader is confronted with a narrator, who gives him interesting informations but does neither explicitate a problematic nor formulate alternative answers which could be discussed. Thus the reader lacks the possibility to verify the account; for the simple reason that a narrative cannot be criticized, except by another narrative on the same topic. No doubt, the narrative form is one of the main problems of traditional literary history.

Another problem arises for the reader when the history is written by a group of specialists, who are concerned with natural sciences, music, book-market, journalism and literary criticism. All these matters can certainly help us to understand the literature of a given epoque, but the juxtaposition of isolated monographs fails to grasp the interrelation between these domains and the process of literature.

As we recognize the undeniable achievements of the new social histories of literature, like those edited by Abraham and Desné or Claude Pichois, we, nevertheless, feel uncomfortable with their discourse. This takes us back to the arguments of those authors who have criticized literary history or history tout court. Nietzsche criticizes antiquarian historicism as a discourse hostile to life, slackening the impulse to action. I do not think that this argument is still a strong one today: (1) it is visibly bound up with an irrational concept of life, and (2) the conservative culture Nietzsche is fighting against, has largely withered away. In comparison with Nietzsche, Valery’s attack on history has proved to be stronger. In his view history is nothing but fiction conceived by minorities in order to manipulate the masses: “L’histoire et les théories politiques ou économiques sont des fabrications littéraires qui n’ont d’autre fin et d’autre valeur que celles de servir d’excitants ou d’aliments aux spéculations et passions individuelles des minorités qui agitent le nombre et en disposent” (Valéry 1974, Vol. 2: 1356).

From this point of view one can elaborate an ideological critique of the histories of national literature. But Valéry aims at another target, the legitimacy of this historical discourse and its claim to provide knowledge. Now, an analysis of Valéry’s Cahiers could demonstrate that he himself does not stick to his own anti-historical principles and recurs often to historical explanation. What differenciates his approach from traditional history is the abandoning of the narrative form. Valéry establishes constellations, observes their changes and tries to find out the reasons of these changes. Here we can discover interesting suggestions for writing a new type of a literary history.

The Russian Formalists have not been mainly concerned with traditional literary history, which they despised as a loose mixture of morals, psychology and philosophy, opposing to it the artistic device as the only object of literary science.3 The barriers of the Formalist’s concept of science, imprinted by positivism, are obvious today.4 Nevertheless at least two of their categories remain important for further attempts in writing literary history: Evolution and artistic device. The Formalists worked closely together with the Russian Futurists. This cooperation allowed them to turn away from the traditional concept of organic development and to stress the break as a crucial stage of what they called evolution. Contrary to the emphasis put on the individual work by the exponents of the New Criticism and the German Werkimmanenz, the Formalists aimed at an understanding of the function of literary techniques which is determined by the conventions of genre. A literary history which takes into account the findings of the Formalists, can no longer be based on a chronological series of great authors and canonized works, it has also to be a history of forms, more precisely: A history of the literary material. But at the same time it should avoid transforming the renewal of the artistic material into a criterium of aesthetic evaluation.5

These few remarks cannot exhaust a critique of traditional literary history which should reveal the presumptions of this type of discourse. Limited to canonized works, it presupposes a concept of literature and a system of aesthetic norms and these presumptions are taken for granted without discussion. Now, one cannot ignore that the concept of literature and the system of aesthetic norms have changed during the course of history. The occulation of these changes in traditional literary history is not a failure that could be easily corrected, it is its essence. Thus the discourse of traditional literary history is defined by a lack of reflection on its historicity. Because it aims at stabilizing a given tradition it is inevitable that it neglects its historical presuppositions. Spelling them out it would counteract its social function. Even authors like Gadamer who acknowledge the historicity of understanding, do not renounce the idea of a ‘timeless presence’ of the works of art.6

A possible alternative to the traditional literary history which, so far I see, has not been realized in a consequent way, would be a rigorously positivistic approach, renouncing all normative claims and aiming exclusively at the account of facts.7 The problem with the positivistic concept of fact is well known, we need not emphasize it in this paper; nevertheless, it would be interesting to dispose of a History of the French Novel established rigorously on quantitative data as for instance mass-reception. Stendhal and Proust would not necessarily be mentioned in such a book, where Pigault-Lebrun and Feuillet were leading figures. Although a positivistic literary history could be a useful rectification of our current ideas of the development of literature, it does not give a satisfying solution to the problem of writing literary history. Setting aside the normative aspect, it misses the specific interest we have in reading literary works.

2. The construction of the present

“Die Geschichte ist Gegenstand einer Konstruktion, deren Ort nicht die homogene, leere Zeit, sondern die von ‘Jetztzeit’ erfullte bildet”8

Obviously our expectations from literary history are contradictory. On the one hand we are keen on normative orientation in the jungle of tradition, on the other hand we are extremely sensible to authoritative normative claims and we tend to relativize them by analysing their function.9 To put it in other terms we expect that literary history links a quasi-objective knowledge of the functions of literature in bourgeois society with a hermeneutic perspective orientating our commerce with literary tradition. These contradictory claims can be seen as an expression of the precarious position of the arts in bourgeois society since the historic avant-garde movements attacked the autonomous institution of art. We cannot take for granted that this problem is to be solved at its best by a new concept of literary history. An alternative strategy of research may even be more plausible, namely studying the function of literature and the evaluation of tradition separately. One can argue that once the two issues have been separated, it would be difficult to reinstate them again. This problem could be managed by developing a unifying perspective for the history of the function of literature and for the reflection on aesthetic evaluation. It is the construction of the present which helps us to develop such a perspective.

In Sartre's La Nausée the narrator suddenly becomes aware of the fundamental difference between life and story telling. While things happen, you do not know what will happen next, the future is always open. That is different with story telling: the narrator knows the end of the story he is telling and he organizes all the details he mentions from this point of view, which is different from that of the person who lives the story. Transfered to history, this signifies that the historian regards the past as the prehistory of his own present. From the infinite quantity of what has happened in the past he chooses the moments which help him to understand his time along progressive or declining lines. This difference between the ‘real’ process and the historical narrative force us to raise the question whether there is a possibility of writing history which is not in the same way determined by the end. Hans-Robert Jauss asks why, in order to do justice to the contingencies of history, the historian does not imitate the literary techniques of the modern novelists who “destroyed the teleology of the epic plot”10. As far as I know this proposition has never been taken up. This is small wonder, when we remember that in his Ulysses Joyce had to concentrate on one day, in order to grasp the contingencies of every day life and to loosen the ties between the production of sense and the outcome of the story.

The historian cannot dispense with the ties that bind him to his own present, but he can explicitate them. Thus he destroys the illusion that historical narrative reflects the real course of events. Indicating that his starting point is not the Renaissance or the seventeenth century, but the epoque he is living in, the historian enables the reader to understand the narrative as a construction. Insofar as the choice and interpretation of the facts are determined by this point of reference, it is the real beginning of the narrative. If the narrative is thus revealed as a construction, the illusion that it is a mere reflection of reality disappears. Such a revealance makes the narrative criticizable and that would be an important step forward in writing literary history.

I have suggested to sketch out the development of the arts in bourgeois society from the vantage point of the historical avant-garde movements and their project of abolishing the autonomous art by integrating it into the praxis of life.11 This presupposes that neither Adorno’s modernism nor Lukács’ anti-modernism are constructions which can still claim to orientate the aesthetic thoughts of our time. There is evidence for this assumption, since the two Hegel-marxists are unable to assign a systematic place within their theories neither to the avant-garde (hostile to the category of the work) nor to the oeuvre of Brecht. The price they pay for the fascinating consequence of their theories may seem high, insofar as they have to neglect or to devaluate important domains of literary or artistic production. Adorno interprets the development of music in bourgeois society from Haydn and Mozart to Schönberg as history of a (although dialectically broken) progress ending with “the conscient handling or the natural sound-material”12 (bewußte Verfügung übers Naturmaterial). Lukács interprets the history of literature from Goethe, Schiller and the French realists of the early 19th century to Kafka, Joyce and Musil as history of a decay.13 In the two cases the historical development of artistic material and the aesthetic evaluation are closely intertwined. Thus the decision about value-questions is no longer tied to the analysis of individual works, but previously made on the level of artistic material. This is all the more questionable, the more we become aware of the impossibility to shrink the range of aesthetic material by setting aesthetic criteria, even if these limitations were legitimized by historical reflection.

The Theory of Avant-garde dispenses with this kind of connection between the development of artistic material and aesthetic evaluation. For instance, it acknowledges the prominent place of aestheticism in the development of art in bourgeois society (insofar as autonomy here defines not only the status of art; but the content (Gehalt) of the work), but from this it does not deduce a positive evaluation of aestheticist works. It is the distinction between institution (i.e. the normative frame of the production and reception of art in a given epoch), artistic material (i.e. the forms historically charged with meaning) and individual work which permits the loosening of the link between the development of literature and aesthetic evaluation. Mallarmé realizes the ‘pure work of art’, of which the possibility was inherent in the autonomous institution of art and he develops an adequate material for this purpose. The undeniable impact he exercised on the artistic development, on the level of institution and on the level of material, says nothing about the aesthetic value of his works. If diagnostical strength is one criterion of an important work, we will probably incline to prefer Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror to many texts of Mallarmé.

3. Some consequences

We have pointed out not only some problems of traditional literary history, but also the specific difficulty of a reorientation of the genre. So I want to finish my reflections with some pragmatic consequences, without making any systematic claims.

(1) The changes to which the concept of literature is exposed to, should be a main topic for the historian of literature. The institutionalized concept of literature and its differenciation into genres fix the frame which determines the function and the impact of literary works in a given epoch. On this level literary history is a history of the changes of function(s) of literature.14 But our interest in it is a hermeneutic one, finally it aims by means of historical analysis at an insight into the possible function(s) of literature in our society.

(2) The critique of the narrowness of the canon of literary works treated by traditional literary history has provoked analysis of mass literature which soon became a separated discipline. A history of the function(s) of literature had to raise the question of how the two literatures are related to one another. The relation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ (or with Bourdieu’s terms legitimate and illegitimate) literature is not a stable one. It is the auratisation of the work of art in the aesthetics of autonomy which creates the concept of the trivial as the literary evil. And it is not by chance that the erosion of the autonomous concept of the work or art due to the avant-garde movements has been followed by an attempt of revaluating what has been depreciated as trivial literature.15

(3) We have discussed above the problem resulting from the juxtaposition of different parallel histories. If we call institution the normative, organization the economic instance regulating the different spheres of literary life16, it should be possible to grasp the link between literary criticism, the development of the press and of literature. At the same time one had to dispense with continuous account of press history, in order to concentrate on the moments of maximum impact of the press either on the concept of literature, or on the literary material or on the modes of reception. At all three levels the introduction of the roman-feuilleton in the eighteen-hundred-and-thirties in France had such an impact. It provoked a predilection of the authors for the direct speech (the roman-feuilleton was paid by the line), a new mode of reception and a radicalisation of the doctrines of autonomy of art.17

Another example may elucidate the concept of a plurifolded history: For a traditional literary history Hugo and Baudelaire are the most important poets of the Second Empire; the most read lyrical author of the time, however, was probably Musset. This fact sheds light on the literary life of the epoch; but in order to comprehend its full meaning we have to establish the constellation between Musset’s success and his rejection from the most prominent authors of the early modernism. For Lautréamont, Rimbaud and Valéry a moralizing poem like Musset’s Rolla is an object of unanimous contempt. Lautréamont’s cynical attitude, Rimbaud’s voyance and Valery’s attack on what he calls les choses vagues are directed at this type of poetry.

(4) As we have seen, traditional literary history provides only poor knowledge about literature. The positivistic approach, based exclusively on quantitative data, fails also to meet our interest in a non-dogmatic discourse on the historical development of literature, because it sets aside the normative aspect. Our problem seems to be that we want to assume the perspective of the participant and that of the observer at the same time. On the one hand we want to practice an emphatic commerce with literary works, on the other we are keen on getting insight into the functioning of literature in our society. This contradictory position results from the erosion of the concept of autonomous art due to the avant-garde movements and still going on today. The discourse of the avant-garde movements aiming at abolishing the autonomous institution of art is a thing of the past as well as the discourse of traditional literary history. Adorno tries to meet this crisis by a canonization of modernism, by which – despite the critical impulse of his thinking – the aesthetics of autonomy and thus the normative core of the dominating institution of art is restored. Bourdieu on the contrary favours a functionalist approach. He analyses the actions of the subjects within what he terms ‘the cultural field’ exclusively with regard to the chances of winning power and prestige and considers the cultural objects simply as strategic means which the producers use in the struggle for power. None of these two discourses meet the crisis of the institution of art we are experiencing. We continue to have normative questions about literature, but at the same time we want to get insight into the function(s) of literature in bourgeois society. And the two discourses shall be intertwined in such a way that they elucidate one another.

Whether this task can be tackled best by literary history, may be questionable; one reason is that till now literary history was supposed to deal with all relevant literary facts. This claim of completeness produces a conservative gesture of saving values, corresponding to the narrative as a pseudo-objective genre. Historical construction on the contrary clashes with the principle of completeness. Related to the present, it provokes criticism, thus compelling to intertwine the insight into function(s) and the hermeneutic approach of self-enlightenment. The project would neither aim at a new aesthetic, nor at a pseudo-objective knowledge about the functioning of literature (or single genres) within bourgeois society, nor at a supposedly exhausting interpretation of individual works. It would aim at encouraging a dealing with literary texts liberated from the idealist metaphysic of art but sticking to the truth content of the idealist aesthetics, i.e., the criticism of alienation.


  1. Valéry (Paul), Cahiers, t. 2, Paris, Gallimard, 1974, p. 1229.

  2. Krauss (Werner), « Literaturgeschichte als geschichtlicher Auftrag », dans Studien und Aufsätze, Berlin, Rütten und Loening, 1959.

  3. Erlich (Victor), Russischer Formalismus, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1973, p. 78, 85.

  4. Striedter (Jurij), « Zur formalistischen Theorie der Prosa und der literarischen Evolutuion », dans Russischer Formalismus. Texte zur allgemeinen Literaturtheorie und zur Theorie der Prosa, sous la direction de Jurij Striedter, Munich, Wilhelm Fink, 1969, p. XIIIff ; Bürger (Peter), Vermittlung - Rezeption - Funktion - Ästhetische Theorie und Methodologie der Literaturwissenschaft, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1979, p. 101ff.

  5. With the creation of the inner monologue Édouard Dujardin has invented a new literary material, the importance of which for the novel of the 20th century can hardly be overestimated, but this does not make his Les lauriers sont coupés an outstanding work of art.

  6. Gadamer (Hans-Georg), Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Tübingen, Mohr, 1965, p. 272.

  7. Lukács (Georg), « Zur Theorie der Literaturgeschichte », dans Georg Lukács. Text und Kritik, sous la direction de Arnold Heinz Ludwig, Munich, Boorberg, 1973, p. 24-51.

  8. Benjamin (Walter), « Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen », dans Illuminationen : Ausgewählte Schriften, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1961, p. 261.

  9. Bourdieu (Pierre), La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979.

  10. Jauss (Hans Robert), Literaturgeschichte als Provokation, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1970, p. 230.

  11. Bürger (Peter), The Theory of the Avant-Garde, traduction de Michael Shaw, préface de Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

  12. Adorno (Theodor W.), Philosophie der neuen Musik, Francfort, Ulstein, 1972, p. 61ff.

  13. Lukács (Georg), Wider den missverstandenen Realismus, Hambourg, Claassen, 1958.

  14. Bürger (Peter), Zum Funktionswandel der Literatur, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1983.

  15. Schulte-Sasse (Jochen), Literarische Wertung, Stuttgart, Metzler, 1976 ; Bürger (Christa) (Dir.), Zur Dichotomisierung von hoher und niederer Literatur, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1982.

  16. Hohendahl (Peter U.), « Beyond Reception Aesthetics », New German Critique, no 28, 1983, p. 108-143.

  17. Bürger (Peter), « Literarische Markt und autonomer Kunstbegriff », dans Zur Dichotomisierung von hoher und niederer Literatur, sous la direction de Christa Bürger, Francfort, Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 241-265.

Pour citer cet article :

Peter Bürger, « On Literary History », réédition sur le site des ressources Socius, URL :, page consultée le 14 juillet 2024.

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