Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 691-696
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Types, Tropes, and the Poetics of Conventionality
Modern European Literature, Amsterdam
The format of the Collection 128 series imposes on specialists the constraint of surveying a topic within 128 pages. On the whole it works admirably well and has made this series a good alternative to Presses Universitaires de France (PUF)’s tried and trusted “Que sais-je?” All the more so in the present case, because the new edition of the Que sais-je? volume on La littérature comparée by Yves Chevrel (replacing the older version by Marius-François Guyard) has written the study of national stereotypes out of the comparatist agenda.
In their allotted 128 pages, the authors have concisely covered a wide-ranging topic; the result is exemplary for its lucidity and analytical clearsightedness. Ruth Amossy has, of course, dealt with the topic before in her books Les discours du cliché (with Elisheva Rosen) and Les idées reçues and in her more recent collection Critique et légitimité du préjugé (with Michel Delon). Anne Herschberg Pierrot has treated the topic in a study on Gustave Flaubert and in various articles. What gives this short book an added value, however, is the way it brings together various aspects of cliché and stereotype in the sense indicated by the subtitle: stereotype as trope, as discourse, and as a way of seeing (and schematizing) the world.
Here more than in any other realm the verbal world of textuality and the real world of human actions and interactions meet. A stereotype can be merely an eroded turn of phrase (e.g., to describe a prime minister as “the [End Page 691] helmsman of the ship of state”), or it can be a conventional way of viewing and characterizing the world (the idea that money cannot buy happiness or that the Chinese are inscrutable). Indeed on closer reflection—and this is what Stéréotypes et clichés invites us to do—it appears that our patterns of viewing the world and of naming or describing it are interrelated in manifold ways. Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues castigates both platitudinous thoughts and hackneyed phraseology. This interrelation between attitude and discourse is the subject of much debate nowadays, but its complexities are often lost on the more dogmatic advocates of political correctness, who in many cases appear to argue for replacing one register of stereotype with another. The clichés of denigration are (obviously) a Bad Thing, but the clichés of celebration seem to be OK. Likewise much fruitless and unresolved debate centers on the question of whether or not stereotypes contain “a grain of truth” or, conversely, whether or not it is quixotic to maintain the position that all stereotypes must be necessarily wrong. We would do well to heed the point made by Ian Littlewood (1996: xiii), who, after describing how the unwary visitor to Japan is struck by the extent to which that country conforms to our preconceived expectations, continues: “One by one, the time-honoured images turn out to be true. But in doing so, they obscure all the other things that are true—which is why they are dangerous. They teach us what to look for, and that is what we find; everything else becomes a background blur. We are left with a reality selected for us by our stereotypes.” All this persistent confusion is perhaps in the nature of the topic. Stereotypes connote a sphere of thought and discourse that stands in a befogged relationship to empirical reality and scientific falsification. Accordingly the various scholarly disciplines that study the subject tend often to work in ignorance of each other’s insights, methods, and theoretical tenets. The empirical sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, and social psychology, have little knowledge of what has been done in the historical sciences (including literary history) let alone in the...