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  • Literary and Linguistic Theories in Eighteenth-Century France: From Nuances to Impertinence
  • Jennifer Furlong
Edward Nye . Literary and Linguistic Theories in Eighteenth-Century France: From Nuances to Impertinence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 250 pp.

Edward Nye's Literary and Linguistic Theories in Eighteenth-Century France: From Nuances to Impertinence is an erudite tour through one of the eighteenth century's more difficult aesthetic questions—that of imitation. In the eighteenth century, art, be it visual, literary or musical, was often seen as having one imperative; it had to imitate nature. The question that immediately follows involves the definition of this "nature." Should art represent an idealized "beautiful nature" as imagined by the artist or should it present a more faithful picture of the existing world? Nye's work explores this theme within the context of eighteenth-century linguistic theories, noting that, as imitation was a central question for many linguistic theorists, these theories emerge as crucial theories of literary aesthetics. It is the breakdown of the principle towards the end of the century, Nye argues, that ushers in a new paradigm; the artist is not longer seeks to be a mirror, but rather "a prism through which nature is refracted" (224).

The book begins with a discussion of the history of the word nuances, which can be defined as both shades of colors or degrees of meaning. Nye considers the seventeenth-century "querelle du coloris" to be at the source of this useful aesthetic term. This artistic quarrel pitted Charles Le Brun and the "poussinistes," who believed that the measurable logic of perspective gave meaning to visual art, against Roger de Piles and the "rubénistes," who believed that the nuances of color present in a painting were responsible for its effect on its viewer. At stake in this debate is the very nature of the aesthetic experience: is it quantifiable, like the rules of geometry that govern perspective or is it subjective and elusive, like the individual's perception of color. Nye goes on to consider the role of nuance in several domains, that of music and linguistic theories of genre and synonymy, concluding that nuance becomes a significant term in aesthetic theory, expressing the ambiguities in thought and experience that pose problems for representation. [End Page 127]

Chapter two addresses the question of imitation as it specifically applies to the language, examining whether it can capture the entire range of the nuances of human thought and feeling. Those who attempted to cultivate a language that would express these nuances were often accused of préciosité, that is, artificial, meaningless refinement. Nye argues that writers such as Marivaux and Houdard de La Motte "cultivate the art of synonyms, rhetorical devices or figurative language with the intention of drawing a typical or characteristic picture of human nature, and argue that there is fundamentally 'clarity' of imitation in doing so" (49). Their opponents, however, found that this deployment of ambiguity was the task of the philosopher rather than the poet, and that their imitations of life, so to speak, left their readers unmoved. Nye goes on to explore what he considers to be various compromises between this innovative, shifting use of language and a traditional desire for meaning; he discusses the linguistic theories elaborated in Girard's Synonymes françois (1718; 1737), Dumarsais's Traité des tropes (1730), and Olivet's Traité de la prosodie françoise (1736). These little known "containment" texts mark an important turning point for Nye, a historical moment in which the notion of convention is increasingly disregarded, but a moment in which a desire for convention abided.

For Nye, the work of Condillac, the Essai sur l'origine des connoissances humaines (1746) and the Art d'écrire (published 1798), provides a means to reconcile both the desire for innovation and the need for unproblematized meaning. The theories of Condillac allow us to see these two factors working within a continuum, rather than in opposition. For Condillac, language's original goal is to imitate basic feelings such as hunger and pain, and to mimic the natural, spontaneous responses to stimuli that arise in the individual; as such, it is a product of empathy for...


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