restricted access Authorizing the Illicit, or How to Create Works of Lasting Insignificance
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Authorizing the Illicit, or How to Create Works of Lasting Insignificance Anne M. Menke B ETWEEN 1655 AND 1682, three curious little works were pub­ lished in France: L ’Ecole des filles, ou l’académie des dames, Le Satyre sotadique de Luisa Sigea, and Vénus dans le cloître. The subject matter of these anonymous or pseudonymous, clandestinely pub­ lished dialogues is the sexual initiation of a bourgeois girl under the aegis of a slightly more experienced young woman. Part and parcel of the sexual education is a contestation of contemporary norms of femininity in a Christian culture, which authorized sexuality only within the context of marriage and, ideally, only for the purpose of procreation. Contrary to such societal expectations, these humorous fictions of sexual initiation articulate the pleasures and techniques of sex, and provide information on how to reconcile the pursuit of this illicit delight with the dictates of female virtue and virginity, marital life, and even religious vows. Three hundred years later, despite growing critical attention, these early modern erotic fictions remain and perhaps exemplify what is meant by minor works. What follows is not an argument for their inclusion in the canon, nor even an analysis of why they are deservedly minor texts. Instead I want to consider how certain conditions of production and dis­ tribution created “ classics” which continue to define the seventeenth century as the Grand Siècle of French literature, while others resulted in works of lasting literary insignificance.1 Despite their seeming lack of merit, an analysis of the emergence of the category to which erotic texts were relegated enables us to better understand the role played by litera­ ture at exactly the moment it rose to cultural prominence. The only real claim to fame ever made for these minor texts is their assigned status of originary moment, that of the beginning of French erotic fiction, or, if you will, pornography. Some critics define the erotic as a certain theme—sexual love—or certain formal qualities—repetition, for example. My thesis, however, is that what constitutes the erotic as a distinct category from “ literature” is neither these thematic nor formal qualities. Instead I want to suggest that the erotic is defined by the sep­ arate material, legal, and moral conditions in which it is produced, dis­ 84 Su m m e r 1995 M enke tributed, and consumed. In seventeenth-century France, one network of producing, distributing, and consuming imaginative works of prose and poetry created “classics” which came to mark this century as the apogee of French culture, if not culture per se. At exactly the same time, and directly tied to the establishment of the tenets of French Classicism, a separate but decidedly unequal network arose that produced or author­ ized illicit works. Writers of “classics” signed their works and from that signature acquired for the first time financial and social prominence, while pro­ ducers of erotic texts published anonymously and clandestinely. Key to my argument about the negative value assigned to erotic fiction is this lack of an authorial signature at precisely the moment when the writer was not only becoming socially acceptable, but an indispensable pro­ ponent of royal propaganda. According to French sociologists of litera­ ture Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Viala, who have studied these develop­ ments under the rubric of the “literary field” and the “birth of the author,” it is through the evolution of institutions such as the authorial signature that literature began to exist as a specific domain of activities— and this is what Bourdieu means by the literary field—with its own rules, logic, and codes.2Building on their work, I contend that, like the signa­ ture, the exclusion of sexually-explicit material from literature has been one of the field’s primary means of self-definition, as well as a principal method of contestation by unsuccessful, or as they put it, unconsecrated writers. Perhaps the difference between a classic and a minor work, and the importance for this distinction of the material conditions of production, can be suggested by a comparison. In 1965, Mikhail Bakhtin was finally given permission in the Soviet Union to publish his doctoral dissertation, Rabelais and His...


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