What kind of a museum would trade its treasured masterpieces for an ordinary stack of newspapers and a clucking chicken? Who would visit an exhibit hall that displayed forged diamonds, a glass of tap water, and a squat coffee table statuette? In Spoiled Distinctions: Aesthetics and the Ordinary in French Modernism, Hannah Freed-Thall curates just such an array of objects and offers a brilliant tour that reveals “the ordinariness of aesthetic perception, and the unexamined intensities of the ordinary” (4). By investigating such scenes of beholding in works by Marcel Proust, Francis Ponge, Nathalie Sarraute, and Yasmina Reza, Freed-Thall provides a counter-narrative to the familiar one about aesthetic heroism, good taste, and redemption that we more readily associate with French modernism. She makes the persuasive case that these scenes not only reveal the underside of cultural distinction, but also afford a largely unacknowledged phenomenology of aesthetic perceptions that’s vital to our understanding of modernist literature.
For Freed-Thall, French literature and theory converge on questions about the volatility of value and inestimable worth. Refreshingly, she treats critical theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Rancière less as definitive authorities than as curious beholders in their own right. Chief among these theorists, unsurprisingly, is Pierre Bourdieu, whose La Distinction refers more frequently to Proust than to any other literary author. While In Search of Lost Time might be celebrated as the novel of social distinction, Freed-Thall insists (in an against-the-grain manner characteristic of her approach) that “Proust has no interest in flawless exhibitions of cultivated taste. He is drawn, instead, to the edges of distinction, the zone where the aesthetic and the ordinary intersect or shade into one another” (47). With its focus on minor categories, Spoiled Distinctions participates in a broader critical turn that has sought to revitalize aesthetic discourse by retooling its classifications—think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Renu Bora on “texture,” or Anne Anlin Cheng on “shine,” or Sianne Ngai on “stuplimity,” the “cute,” or the “zany.” Following cue, Freed-Thall structures her ideas around “particular modalities of ordinariness” (5). The first three chapters, which comprise part one of her book, are devoted to prestige, the quelconque (or whatever), and nuance in Proust; the second part, which takes up Proust’s literary heirs, considers the awkward in Ponge and the douceâtre (or the sickly sweet) in Sarraute.
If, famously, the real voyage of discovery in In Search of Lost Time is not in seeking new landscapes but rather in having new eyes, Freed-Thall thinks the voyager still might need a jeweler’s loupe. Part one of Spoiled Distinctions begins with the Lemoine Affair, a 1908 scandal in which Henri Lemoine conned De Beers into believing he could fabricate genuine synthetic diamonds. In the year before he began drafting the Recherche, Proust penned a series of ventriloquistic articles about the affair for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and Goncourt, among others. Whereas most critics have read Proust’s Lemoine pastiches as a preliminary warm-up for the Recherche, or as a way to purge the influence of other voices on his own, Freed-Thall understands them, instead, “as modernist experiments in the production of value—test cases exploring the phenomenology of ‘convulsive’ and ‘unstable’ preciosity” (24). The logic of Lemoine diamonds runs counter to a traditional Proustian economy of aesthetic redemption, whereby the narrator converts seemingly mundane objects—a cup of tea, a napkin, a cobblestone—into revelatory truths through feats of involuntary memory. Lemoine’s revelatory lie, on the contrary, is that the synthetic diamonds in his false-bottomed crucible are actually real, ordinary diamonds. This object lesson is rehearsed throughout the Recherche, as the narrator finds himself again and again “fascinated by objects that are simultaneously invaluable and valueless—at once incompatible and perfectly forgettable” (29). [End Page 476]
In Freed-Thall’s Recherche, the daily newspaper, with its heterogeneous assemblages, cross-pollinations of genres, and temporal relays, turns out to be a miniature version...