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Introduction

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pp. 1-13

Everyone expresses opinions about taste, but almost no one can define it; in fact, it may be easier to say what good taste is not than to give a formula for what it is. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas remarks about the choices made by present-day consumers, “Taste is best understood by negative judgments. The discourse of dislike...

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1. Too Many Books

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pp. 14-38

According to one commonly held view of the eighteenth century, the printing press spread Enlightenment to the masses and made democracy more possible than ever before. This was an idea promoted by writers of the Revolutionary era such as Condorcet and Benjamin Franklin, and it is an idea that appeals to our present-day sensibilities...

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2. What Is Good Taste?

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pp. 39-67

It would be impossible to undertake a discussion of bad taste without first considering the standard of good taste, a term that was notoriously difficult to define, even among its self-appointed defenders. The Dictionnaire de Trévoux, an authority on matters of erudition in the eighteenth century, gives us a glimpse of the confusion surrounding...

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3. The Barbaric, or Of Time and Taste

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pp. 68-99

When it comes to taste, some eras are indisputably better than others— so states the abbé Dubos: “the superior excellency of some ages, in comparison to others, is a thing too well known, to require any arguments to evince it. Our business here is to trace, if possible, those causes which render one particular age so vastly superior to others.”1...

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4. On Foreign Taste

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pp. 100-128

The supposed universality of taste made it necessary for theorists to answer the question: Can other countries have good taste? To admit the possibility of different yet valid standards of artistic beauty in other countries called into question the whole basis of the universality of taste. If French taste were acknowledged to be merely one...

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5. The Obscure, or Enigmas and the Enigmatic

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pp. 129-162

The idea that clarity and order characterize good writing seems so self-evident today that one rarely sees it as part of a polemic. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, critics led a campaign to make clarity and order coincide with French style in order to exclude certain types of writing practiced by their contemporaries. They...

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6. The Disorderly

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pp. 163-182

Like clarity, order seems so self-evident as to be indisputable. Under this assumption, the proponents of clarity and order characterized these principles as the defining features of the French language, ostensibly dismissing any rival aesthetics. The thought that one should prefer the orderly over the disorderly seems so reasonable that we forget...

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Conclusion

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pp. 183-188

In 1834, Victor Hugo defiantly renounced good taste, specifically the good taste of eighteenth-century France, in a long, polemical poem entitled “Réponse à un acte d’accusation.” The violent language of this piece reveals to what extent he assumes that taste had exerted an oppressive power over poetic creativity. In this poem, Hugo represents...

Notes

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pp. 189-252

Works Cited

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pp. 253-262

Index

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pp. 263-267

Acknowledgments

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pp. 268-268