The Bad Taste of Others

The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

Jennifer Tsien
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    The Bad Taste of Others
    Book Description:

    An act of bad taste was more than a faux pas to French philosophers of the Enlightenment. To Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and others, bad taste in the arts could be a sign of the decline of a civilization. These intellectuals, faced with the potential chaos of an expanding literary market, created seals of disapproval in order to shape the literary and cultural heritage of France in their image. In The Bad Taste of Others Jennifer Tsien examines the power of ridicule and exclusion to shape the period's aesthetics. Tsien reveals how the philosophes consecrated themselves as the protectors of true French culture modeled on the classical, the rational, and the orderly. Their anxiety over the invasion of the Republic of Letters by hordes of hacks caused them to devise standards that justified the marginalization of worldy women, "barbarians," and plebeians. While critics avoided strict definitions of good taste, they wielded the term "bad taste" against all popular works they wished to erase from the canon of French literature, including Renaissance poetry, biblical drama, the burlesque theater of the previous century, the essays of Montaigne, and genres associated with the so-called précieuses. Tsien's study draws attention to long-disregarded works of salon culture, such as the énigmes, and offers a new perspective on the critical legacy of Voltaire. The philosophes' open disdain for the undiscerning reading public challenges the belief that the rise of aesthetics went hand in hand with Enlightenment ideas of equality and relativism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0512-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    Everyone expresses opinions about taste, but almost no one can define it; in fact, it may be easier to say what good taste is not than to give a formula for what it is. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas remarks about the choices made by present-day consumers, “Taste is best understood by negative judgments. The discourse of dislike and ugliness is more revealing than the discourse about aesthetic beauty.”¹ For this reason, examples of bad taste may tell us more about a society’s conception of manners, fashion, and artistic value than any rules of good taste. In our day, many...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Too Many Books
    (pp. 14-38)

    According to one commonly held view of the eighteenth century, the printing press spread Enlightenment to the masses and made democracy more possible than ever before. This was an idea promoted by writers of the Revolutionary era such as Condorcet and Benjamin Franklin, and it is an idea that appeals to our present-day sensibilities. But if generalized literacy was so beneficial, what should we make of the number of authors of the eighteenth century who warned against the deluge of unworthy people, writers and readers, who supposedly overcrowded the literary world?

    As I will demonstrate, the growing literary public was,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO What Is Good Taste?
    (pp. 39-67)

    It would be impossible to undertake a discussion of bad taste without first considering the standard of good taste, a term that was notoriously difficult to define, even among its self-appointed defenders. The Dictionnaire de Trévoux, an authority on matters of erudition in the eighteenth century, gives us a glimpse of the confusion surrounding the word taste. The author of the article “Goust” (“Taste”) points out, “it is much easier to say what is not taste, good and bad taste, than to mark precisely what it is.”¹ He equates taste with “judgment” or “discernment,” while explaining to us what taste...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Barbaric, or Of Time and Taste
    (pp. 68-99)

    When it comes to taste, some eras are indisputably better than others—so states the abbé Dubos: “the superior excellency of some ages, in comparison to others, is a thing too well known, to require any arguments to evince it. Our business here is to trace, if possible, those causes which render one particular age so vastly superior to others.”¹ In other words, there is no need to ask whether some centuries are superior; instead, we would do better to discover why they are superior. If critics like Dubos looked back in time to judge French literary history according to...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR On Foreign Taste
    (pp. 100-128)

    The supposed universality of taste made it necessary for theorists to answer the question: Can other countries have good taste? To admit the possibility of different yet valid standards of artistic beauty in other countries called into question the whole basis of the universality of taste. If French taste were acknowledged to be merely one good taste among many, would that not lead to a dangerous relativism that would further break down the classical ideal, allowing different segments of the population to claim their own standards? Or if tastes were to be different for each country, could a French person...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE The Obscure, or Enigmas and the Enigmatic
    (pp. 129-162)

    The idea that clarity and order characterize good writing seems so self-evident today that one rarely sees it as part of a polemic. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, critics led a campaign to make clarity and order coincide with French style in order to exclude certain types of writing practiced by their contemporaries. They claimed that without these qualities, writing was not French; conversely, languages that were not French did not have these characteristics. In the article “Français” of the Encyclopédie, for example, Voltaire states: “The spirit [génie] of this language is its clarity and order, since each...

  9. CHAPTER SIX The Disorderly
    (pp. 163-182)

    Like clarity, order seems so self-evident as to be indisputable. Under this assumption, the proponents of clarity and order characterized these principles as the defining features of the French language, ostensibly dismissing any rival aesthetics. The thought that one should prefer the orderly over the disorderly seems so reasonable that we forget that conversation, magazines, travel narratives, and other forms of communication had their particular reasons for not ordering knowledge schematically. The critics themselves, such as Montesquieu and Diderot, sometimes seemed to revel in disordered plots, whether because they imitated the vagaries of human thought or because they deliberately played...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 183-188)

    In 1834, Victor Hugo defiantly renounced good taste, specifically the good taste of eighteenth-century France, in a long, polemical poem entitled “Réponse à un acte d’accusation.” The violent language of this piece reveals to what extent he assumes that taste had exerted an oppressive power over poetic creativity. In this poem, Hugo represents the norms of rhetoric and poetics as a number of arrogant aristocrats, while he imagines the words that did not fit the rules of decorum as the long-suffering populace. “Poetry was a monarchy,”¹ he proclaims, and he takes on the role of the monarchy’s destroyer when he...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 189-252)
    (pp. 253-262)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 263-267)
    (pp. 268-268)