- Skeptical Selves: Empiricism and Modernity in the French Novel
Skeptical Selves explains how linguistic relativism has shaped French literature from the Enlightenment to the present. Elena Russo provides three cases: Prévost’s Histoire d’une Grecque moderne (1740), Constant’s Adolphe (1816), and des Forêts’s Le Bavard (1946). Her fascinating scholarly goal is to portray the inexorable decline of the novel in a climate of ever growing doubt about the truthfulness of narration. Her remarkably ambitious philosophical goal is to save the novel by refuting skepticism!
More precisely, Russo’s target is not every form of doubt but rather a specific current of French skeptical consciousness. In recent years, the representatives of this current have been Derrida and Blanchot. Its main feature is a denial of the correspondence notion of the language-truth relationship combined—paradoxically—with an intense nostalgia for a perfectly mimetic language that has allegedly been lost. The seemingly most radical critics of the sign, Russo claims, never overcome the perverse yearning for the very mimesis whose possibility they deny (p. 3).
Russo is getting at an interesting distinction here, the distinction between epistemological modesty, which she upholds, and French skepticism, which she deplores. Epistemological modesty means the redefinition of truth according to some criterion other than perfect representation of the external world. French skepticism for her means the insistence on an absolute standard of mimetic reliability and a simultaneous denial that this standard can ever be reached. “Much of the language of negativity we have grown accustomed to in contemporary criticism rests upon the following syllogism: to know is to know directly and without mediation; this is not possible; therefore, the world is unknowable. Any conceptualization is ipso facto viewed as suspect, hence the flight towards nonverbal forms of expression, such as music and silence” (p. 13).
After suggesting in her first chapter that French skepticism is a specific style of thought, not a final answer to our epistemological queries, Russo goes on to illustrate the impact of this skepticism on the novel. Prévost’s text, she observes, is one of the first novels built around the distorted point of view of a fallible [End Page 179] narrator. The narrator is the French ambassador to Constantinople who falls in love with a woman, Théophé, recently freed from a seraglio. Both his love and his comprehension are frustrated by the woman’s apparent simplicity and virtue. “Signs acquire a meaning opposite to their manifest one,” Russo notes. “It is precisely the discourse that should have made Théophé look credible that makes her appear suspicious. She is cunning and deceptive because she appears ‘naive’ and ‘innocent’; she is opaque because of her ‘simplicity’ and ‘openness’” (p. 42). The whole point of the novel is to show that we are imprisoned in subjectivity and there is no way out. For a time the narrator attempts to resolve his doubts regarding Théophé’s words by concentrating instead on her body. But here as well he can discover only ambiguity: nothing reveals clearly whether she is conquerable and whether she already has another lover.
The novel ends with the unexplained death of Théophé, and Russo comments: “we are given the impression that, rather than ending his text, Prévost is ridding himself of an intractable problem” (p. 66). Artfully, the rest of the book helps us see that the tendency to thematize philosophical problems that have no solutions is intensified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—to the point where not merely the ending of novels but novels themselves disappear. (Of course, Russo means not that people no longer write novels but that the genre has succeeded in diminishing its own stature by so frequently decrying the limits of language.)
The chapter on Constant did not strike me as the strongest part of the book. The problem is due perhaps to the fact that Constant was a truly great thinker, a brilliant political theorist and philosopher of religion as well as a romantic novelist. One chapter does not...