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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 510-514
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For an Aesthetics of the Inconsequential
Josué Harari, Emory University
Thomas M. Kavanagh. Esthetics of the Moment: Literature and Art in the French Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). 294 + viii pages. $49.95 cloth.
Nathalie Rizzoni. Charles-François Pannard et l'esthétique du "petit" (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 2000). 526 + x pages.
These two books complement each other nicely, since they both illuminate a crucial aspect of the French Enlightenment, an aspect we have long taken for granted but have paradoxically continuously neglected: the French enlightenment's "art de vivre" and how this art pervades every aspect of the century's literary and cultural productions. In reviewing the above books, I shall focus on what I truly consider groundbreaking in the theoretical paradigm proposed by Kavanagh, rather than comment on the details of Esthetics of The Moment. In the case of Pannard et l'esthétique du petit the reverse approach will be used: the thematics of the book will be foregrounded.
Kavanagh's Esthetics of the Moment raises a crucial methodological and theoretical question that needs to be underscored in order to understand the real issue at stake in the book. Consider the following example, which may seem at first unrelated but is, on the contrary, entirely germane: imagine for a moment, a young woman named Marie, who receives a phone call at her home every 20 minutes from 8 PM onward. Each time the unidentified caller asks for Stephanie. At first Marie answers simply that the caller has the wrong number. By the third call Marie is annoyed and lambasts the caller. The fourth call makes her angry and somewhat disturbed, and by the fifth call Marie is in a state of anxiety and perhaps even fear: she might not answer the phone, hang up on the caller, or even ask a friend to come over to alleviate her fear . . . Question: will there be a sixth call? Most certainly! And if we have understood the pattern it will occur exactly twenty minutes after the fifth call. And the seventh call will take place twenty minutes later, and so on. By then Marie will have hopefully called 911, or the phone company, or gotten a sharp whistle to blow out her caller's ear, etc. There are numerous possible scenarios, but what concerns us here is Marie's interpretation of the sequence of calls, and it is her act of interpretation that corresponds to Kavanagh's interpretive gesture vis-a-vis the French Enlightenment.
As Marie experiences (or lives through) this peculiar evening, she interprets successively each phone call in a different manner. The first call is interpreted [End Page 510] at themoment it is received as a wrong number; so is the second. The third call produces a more complex interpretation: at the moment she answers it Marie perceives it probably both as a wrong number but also as having to deal with a dumb caller (or something of this order), which helps explain her annoyance. By the fourth call it is no longer the very moment of the call that directs Marie's interpretation, but rather the sequence of calls. The call proper, at the moment it is received, still spells out wrong number, but the sequence or the temporality in which it is inscribed spells out something else: the oddness of the caller, at the very least. What conclusion can Marie draw from the timely repetition of calls, every twenty minutes? The sequence is clear, but its full significance is not. Marie hesitates between two opposite interpretations: should she draw her conclusion from the meaning of the temporal sequence (which hints at something problematic), or should she conclude according to the rationality of the moment (which still signals "wrong number")? By the fifth call, the moment's interpretation is totally subsumed by the sequence's signification. It does not matter that this fifth call is still a wrong number, what matters is that the sequence now spells out clearly prank call (with its attendant...