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  • Usages et théories de la fiction: Le débat contemporain à l’épreuve des textes anciens (XVI-XVIIIe siècles)
  • Virginia Krause
Françoise Lavocat, ed. Usages et théories de la fiction: Le débat contemporain à l’épreuve des textes anciens (XVI-XVIIIe siècles). Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004. 259 pp.

A generation of critics inspired by Saussurian semiotics firmly excluded referentiality from the study of literature. For these critics, prevailing assumptions regarding realism and reference were based on [End Page 143] false premises that in fact obscured our understanding of the signifying systems of literary texts. Rather than "representing" the real, literature was understood to produce "effets de réel," to borrow Roland Barthes's phrase, the emblem of this generation's bracketing off of referentiality. Now, the contributors to Usages et théories de la fiction return to some of the questions left in suspense, including referentiality itself. With its comparatist's focus and theoretical basis, Françoise Lavocat's collection of essays is a sharp new look at a familiar but poorly understood concept: fictionality. Indeed, fiction informs our basic understanding of texts (still divided into two categories, fiction and non-fiction) despite the haze that tends to surround this concept for literary scholars. As Lavocat points out, even in this post-structuralist moment, critics still adhere to the dogma of the text closed unto itself, or perhaps in intertextual dialogue with other texts, but in any case protected by a fortress designed to keep at bay the vexed question of referentiality.

Lavocat's Avant-Propos situates this collection in the wake of Pourquoi la fiction (1999) by Jean-Marie Schaeffer whose perspective on fiction is broadly anthropological (why do human beings engage in mimetic practices?) rather than definitional (what is the nature of fiction?). The contributors directly engage this work, but mostly in relation to a corpus of early modern literature situated well outside Schaeffer's parameters. The first two essays in the collection then situate fictionality in broad theoretical contexts. Florence de Chalonge surveys roughly fifty years of linguistic theory (Benveniste, Ducrot, Searle, and others) in its attempts to come to terms with referentiality. Otto Pfersmann examines how legal and literary practices of fictionality diverge in light of American scholarly debate on "law and literature."

The second part of the collection consists of essays on early modern texts. Anne Duprat traces the birth of literarity—the perceived autonomy of the literary with respect to other discourses—to the last few decades of the sixteenth century when a neo-platonic current of thought intersected with the reception of Aristotle's Poetics. This essay is a masterful analysis in the tradition of the history of ideas. In her own essay, Françoise Lavocat examines Sannazaro's Arcadia, More's Utopia and the anonymous La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Paradox, play, utopia, and satirical eulogy are privileged modes in early modern fictional worlds, she concludes, because they entertain a paradoxical relation to the "univers de référence" (104). [End Page 144]

If fiction invites "a willing suspension of disbelief" to quote Coleridge's phrase, then literary fiction and religion were bound to collide during the Reformation. Lise Wajeman examines Du Bartas's attempt to enlist literary fictions in defense of the biblical word. In its capacity to engender fear, fiction for Du Bartas can paradoxically serve sacred truths by promoting the appropriate reception—a posture of submission rather than "vain questioning." Mathieu de la Gorce similarly examines an unexpected collaboration between literary fiction and religious polemic—here again, in Reformist writing (Philippe de Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde's Le Tableau des Differens de la Religion).

Taking as her point of departure the Platonic distrust of poetic mimesis, Ariane Bayle examines the perceived porosity between fiction and reality. Laurence Giavarini examines an interesting variation on this potential porosity in her study of libertine uses of fiction (here synonymous with simulation) in Théophile de Viau's trial and Molière's Dom Juan. With the problem of overlapping fictional and real worlds brought so clearly into focus, it is disappointing that Don Quixote's confusion of fiction with reality—his "referential illusion...


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