The Orient of Style: Modernist Allegories of Conversion

The Orient of Style: Modernist Allegories of Conversion

by Beryl Schlossman

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In this study of modernist aesthetics, Beryl Schlossman reveals how for such writers as Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire, the Orient came to symbolize the highest aspirations of literary representation. She demonstrates that through allegory, modernism became a style itself, a style that married the ancient and the modern and that emerged as


In this study of modernist aesthetics, Beryl Schlossman reveals how for such writers as Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire, the Orient came to symbolize the highest aspirations of literary representation. She demonstrates that through allegory, modernism became a style itself, a style that married the ancient and the modern and that emerged as both a cause and an effect, both an ideal construct and an textual materiality, all symbolized by the Orient—land of style, place of plurality, and site of the coexistence of holy lands.
Toward the end of Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator describes the act of creating a work of art as a conversion of sensation into a spiritual equivalent. By means of such allegories of “conversion,” Schlossman shows, the modernist artist disappeared within the work of art and left behind the trace of his sublime vocation, a vocation in which he was transformed, in Schlossman’s words, “into a kind of priest kneeling at the altar of beauty before the masked divinity of representation.”
The author shows how allegory—the representation of the symbolic as something real—was adapted by modernist writers to reflect subjectivity while masking an authorial origin. She reveals how modernist allegory arose, as Walter Benjamin suggests, at the crossroads of history, sociology, economics, urban architecture, and art—providing a kind of map of capitalism—and was produced through the eyes of a melancholic gazing at a “monument of absence.”

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The Orient of Style

Modernist Allegories of Conversion

By Beryl Schlossman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8299-7



Where is the writer in his or her work? Where is "life" found in "art"? Early in the nineteenth century, the first generation of French Romantics answered these questions with a form of interiority and sentimentality that made art and life inseparable, and provoked a century and a half of reactions. Modern literary and critical convictions are rooted in the Romantic attitude and the Symbolist opposition to it: on the one hand, the identity of life and writing has opened up a full range of possibilities for autobiography and mémoire, while on the other hand, the non-identity of life and writing gave rise to the autonomy of writing, its freedom from referential obligations, and its status as a work of art. Although the identity of life and writing entails an act of faith linked to its Protestant roots, it has shaped a tradition of autobiographical writing and criticism that takes a symbiosis of art and life at face value. At the other extreme, the non-identity between life and writing that has occupied much of the modern period allows for a reading of literature (including autobiography) as fiction—beautiful dissimulations that owe no debts to referentiality.

In the late Romantic development now known as the beginnings of Modernism, the continuity of life and art was interrupted by a new element, the unprecedented and strategic emphasis on style. For Flaubert and Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century, the question of style dramatically altered the relationship of writer to writing. Questions of the propriety of subject matter were abruptly dismissed; the effects of horror and violence were no longer rejected; the masks of artifice that were previously categorized as antiquated or inferior to "natural" expression were suddenly revalorized. On the contrary, the masking of authorial personality became a new imperative within an idealization of style that independently formed the aesthetic of Flaubert and Baudelaire, as well as their inheritor in the twentieth century, Proust. The idiom of the French nineteenth century changed radically in the writing of Flaubert and Baudelaire: the "modern" effect of their writing makes much of the French Romanticism that preceded it appear dated. The passage of time has only intensified this impression, common to several generations of readers. In reading Proust the same effect occurs; indeed, much of the writing that followed A la recherche du temps perdu appears markedly less modern.

The object of inquiry that led to the writing of this book was the image of modernity that unfolds in the writings of Flaubert and Proust. What objects are captured by this image? Modernity is reflected and represented in ideology, history, painting, photography, architecture and so on; but its subjectivity is most essentially (and invisibly) implicated in a form of writing that made claims for truth and beauty beyond subject matter and codified formalism. These two "beyonds" add up to a third—style.

In the chapters that follow, the interpretation of Flaubert and Proust depends on a broad conception of style that should not be confused with stylistics. My readings trace the effects and consequences of the two writers' understanding of style as it emerges and and shapes their enterprise of writing. What is at stake is the interpretive status of certain categories of "art" and "life," rather than particular categories of linguistic or grammatical analysis. For this reason, I have chosen not to return to the well-worked categories of Flaubert's syntax or the Proustian overlap of metaphor and metonymy. Through the principles of style that operate in the aesthetic of Flaubert and Proust, it will be possible to focus on the question of style as it operates within the literary text to motivate the turns and arabesques of figural language.

For the purpose of interpreting the enterprise of Flaubert and Proust, my readings take up the question of figural language as "allegory"—the term that Dante used for the "otherness" of textual meaning in the famous Letter XIII to Can Grande. Dante insisted on the Greek etymology of "allegory" and declared allegory to be twofold: it is the second interpretive level of his four levels of scriptural meaning, and it is also his conception of the three levels considered together, set apart from the "literal" level of meaning. The non-literal levels of the text bear "other" meanings; these "other" meanings are related to the literal level as style. Style, the category of "artifice" ("surface," "excess," "cruelty," "impersonality"—terms that will be decoded shortly), stands in opposition to the view of language as "natural." In Dante's allegory, the principle for the Commedia, the non-literal levels of meaning are "other" precisely because they come from beyond the literal; their authority is outside the letter. As in Paul de Man's introduction to-Allegories of Reading, rhetoric comes from an elsewhere of language to challenge grammar. But the question of medieval allegory, like the later argument about symbol versus allegory that engaged Goethe and his contemporaries, is beyond my subject: my brief evocation of the medieval and Renaissance conception of allegory is meant only to provide a backdrop for my exploration of style.

Although the nineteenth-century use of the term "allegory" brings another interpretive apparatus of meaning into view, the question of the "otherness" of allegory remains. It is displaced from the theological realm of medieval speculation to the "otherness" of figural language as the new style of modernity. In this sense, my readings of Flaubert and Proust are an attempt to come to terms with Baudelaire's "Tout pour moi devient allégorie": the depersonalization of sentiment, the representation of evanescence and loss, and the revelation of an absence that renounces (or renders impossible) the comforts of nostalgia. The declaration of loss creates a verbal monument inscribed with the permanence of mourning that concludes "Le Cygne." In response to the evanescence of life and the death of her husband, Andromaque becomes a kind of human statue, a monument of mourning, a figure within the narrator's vision of allegory and an image for that allegory. In the vision that Baudelaire attributes to the narrator of "Le Cygne," the term "allégorie" anchors a poetic voice and a figural constellation; in my readings of Flaubert and Proust, the concept of allegory operates through voice and figure to uncover the principles and effects of modern style that inscribe the artist's vocation in the work of art.

Does modernity offer something like a vocation for allegory? Proust gives an example of it in the kitchen maid Swann calls Giotto's Charity, who overturns the easy hierarchy of art and life. The effect of allegory, the representation of the symbolic as something real, has aesthetic consequences that go far beyond figural typology or allegorical personification. The image of something real that is a representation of the symbolic—the "étrangeté saississante" (1. 82) of allegory—makes it clear that style implicates the "otherness" of meaning in figural landscape as symbolic meaning is enigmatically represented in a figure, image, or "other" painted form. Representation turns the material form into a rebus of the symbolic; "tout pour moi devient allégorie" is another name for the writer's vocation.

What I am calling the "allegory of conversion" in these readings is the representation of an investment in style. The term of allegory conceptualizes the particular framework of style associated with the writers in question; the term of conversion takes up a key word in Proust's criticism of Flaubert that indicates the transformation of language into style. At the same time conversion refers to the writer's vocation and the idealization of style. In this sense the "allegory of conversion" is another name for how "tout pour moi devient allégorie [all becomes allegory for me]"—how vision turns into writing and how language turns into style—is inscribed in the art of Flaubert and Proust.

The conception of a new style based on the absolute of style itself made the artist into a kind of priest kneeling at the altar of beauty before the masked divinity of representation (who appears as Tanit in Flaubert's Salammbô). As figures, hieroglyphs, and traces of black fire, the images of modernity bear the absolute Otherness of writing—allegory. Vocation marks the encounter of this "otherness" with the desire of the writer; vocation is the sublime imperative of style.

The image of modernity is created when the writer rejects a notion of writing as an organic continuity that extends naturally from life. In its place, writing emerges as a work of style that masks the author's sentiments. My specific focus is perhaps the most difficult and mysterious aspect of the Modernist enterprise—the relation between style and the experience of the writer as represented in the novel. The interpretation of this relation implies a double subversion: the secrets of subjectivity—what Proust calls the complicated and arabesqued "grimoire" of the self, i.e., the book waiting to be written—are meant to be deciphered by the artist who translates them into the figural language of the oeuvre. The work must maintain its mystery in order to preserve its status as an aesthetic object. In this sense, the retracing of the author's steps, the decoding of the secrets and their inscriptions, is the taboo imposed by a Modernist aesthetic. The second transgressive act of reading follows from the first: the reading of the text as an investment in the mysterious "otherness" of writing, the decoding of its images, bypasses the categories of Realism, Naturalism, and so on, to concentrate on allegory as the essence of certain literary texts. This subversion challenges the condemnation of allegory as "baroque," "medieval," "patristic"—all terms pronounced as insults in the modern vernacular of secularization—and the championing of literature as a natural phenomenon labeled in Goethe's time as "symbolic." With the exception of Benjamin and his contemporary exegetes, not a single critic of the French nineteenth century has considered the importance of allegory as a phenomenon that unfolds in the modern portrayal of medieval and Renaissance symbolism and aesthetics as well as a specifically Modernist poetics that brings together subjectivity, history, time, and writing. Contrary to critical opinion, when Baudelaire's narrator in "Le Cygne" says "Tout pour moi devient allégorie," he means it. His moment of vision that interiorizes everything it sees and transforms it into allegory—the signification carried by an object that is neither its author/authority nor its organic root—stands for the poetic project of Baudelaire's oeuvre, starting with Les Fleurs du mal.

Proust's criticism of the nineteenth century moves toward a reading of style that is not named as allegorical but that nevertheless counters a kind of anti-allegorical consensus of modern literary criticism by revalorizing the exterior "surface" of Flaubert's vision and the cruel artifices of Baudelaire's art. At the same time, Proust's critique explicitly links his aesthetic project in A la recherche du temps perdu with Flaubert's novels. Proust's understanding of style unravels the contemporary consensus of literary criticism that opposes Flaubert's "exteriority" to Proustian "interiority" in the name of a continuity between art and life; according to this continuity, the claim has been made that Proust's narrator ultimately writes the Recherche. This continuity and its supposed product, however, are pure fiction: Proustian interiority, like Baudelairean interiority, is no less artificial (or allegorical) than the exquisitely constructed "surface" of Flaubert's fiction. On this basis, my frame of reading developed from a view of Flaubert and Proust as parallel images of modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Although Flaubert's letters to Louise Colet offer an eloquent dossier of evidence on the importance of religious concepts of creation and language as a model for art, my reading of Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Proust shifts the question of theology and its interpretive status to its effect on representation. In these French Modernist writings, theology is assimilated in the constellation of aesthetic terms: ecstasy, revelation, and miracles of the "éternité du style" formulate style and the writer's relation to it. Theology enters the secular domain of art and shapes the vocation of the writer through the moments that inscribe a fictional text with its "beginning"; desire knotted its author to the sublime mask, the beautiful cloak, and the figures or images of art. Masked, veiled, and figured, the artist stages a carnival in the necropolis.

This book began with another image of modernity, engaged in a confrontation between theology and comedy. In Joyce's Catholic Comedy of Language (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) I interpreted an aesthetic constellation of subjectivity and style—a poetics of vocation—that reflected Joyce's itinerary: his artistic beginnings were shaped by an unmediated encounter with theology. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joyce moved from theology toward modern style. My method recalls the construction of a triangle that occurs in Book II of Finnegans Wake: the eternal, the sexual, and the scriptural, or reading the text through the filters of theology, psychoanalysis, and the beautiful inked interlaces of art. Theology keeps the stakes of Modernism high by shaping desire according to the demands of a vocation.


The Image of Modernity

Je suis un vieux fossile du romantisme

I am an old fossil of romanticism.

Vous avez trouvé le moyen de rajeunir le romantisme. Vous ne ressemblez à personne (ce qui est le premier de toutes les qualités). L'originalité du style découle de la conception. La phrase est toute bourrée par l'idée, à en craquer ... ce qui me plaît avant tout dans votre livre, c'est que l'art y prédomine. Et puis vous chantez la chair sans l'aimer, d'une façon triste et détachée qui m'est sympathique. Vous êtes résistant comme le marbre.

[You have discovered a way of rejuvenating romanticism. You do not resemble anyone (and that is the first of all good qualities). Originality of style derives from the conception. The sentence is filled to the bursting point with the idea ... what I like above all in your book, is that art reigns in it. And you sing the flesh without loving it, in a sad and detached manner that suits me. You are as resistant as marble.]

Votre article m'a fait le plus grand plaisir. Vous êtes entré dans les arcanes de l'oeuvre, comme si ma cervelle était la vôtre. Cela est compris et senti à fond.

[Your article gave me the greatest pleasure. You penetrated the secrets of the work, as if my brain were yours. The work is understood and felt completely.]

Flaubert and Proust occupy exceptional positions in modern French literature. Although critics often emphasize their aesthetic and stylistic differences, their common ground is immediately perceptible in terms of modernity itself. When Leo Bersani describes an essential trait of modernity in French fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the "centrality of disruptive desire" characteristic of realism, his case rests on the writings of Flaubert and Proust. In another text, however, he elaborates an opposition between the aesthetics of the two writers: "The relations that the Proustian narrator establishes between art and the rest of life seem to originate in the questions posed by Flaubert in order to be able to affirm the separation between art and life." According to Bersani's schema, Proust's novel progresses beyond Flaubert's categories, since the narrator's clear vision of art and its correspondence with life overturns his youthful illusions and convictions.


Excerpted from The Orient of Style by Beryl Schlossman. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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