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The Bad Taste of Others

Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

By Jennifer Tsien

Publication Year: 2011

An act of bad taste was more than a faux pas to French philosophers of the Enlightenment. To Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and others, bad taste in the arts could be a sign of the decline of a civilization. These intellectuals, faced with the potential chaos of an expanding literary market, created seals of disapproval in order to shape the literary and cultural heritage of France in their image. In The Bad Taste of Others Jennifer Tsien examines the power of ridicule and exclusion to shape the period's aesthetics.

Tsien reveals how the philosophes consecrated themselves as the protectors of true French culture modeled on the classical, the rational, and the orderly. Their anxiety over the invasion of the Republic of Letters by hordes of hacks caused them to devise standards that justified the marginalization of worldy women, "barbarians," and plebeians. While critics avoided strict definitions of good taste, they wielded the term "bad taste" against all popular works they wished to erase from the canon of French literature, including Renaissance poetry, biblical drama, the burlesque theater of the previous century, the essays of Montaigne, and genres associated with the so-called précieuses. Tsien's study draws attention to long-disregarded works of salon culture, such as the énigmes, and offers a new perspective on the critical legacy of Voltaire. The philosophes' open disdain for the undiscerning reading public challenges the belief that the rise of aesthetics went hand in hand with Enlightenment ideas of equality and relativism.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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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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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...


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pp. 189-252

Works Cited

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pp. 253-262


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pp. 263-267


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p. 268-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205121
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243598

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011