- Literary Knowing in Neoclassical France: From Poetics to Aesthetics by Ann T. Delehanty
This is a densely but elegantly written polemic that argues for the originality of the work of six authors at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, all privileging sentiment, both in the genesis of their writing and in the evolution of literary criticism in the period. Ann Delehanty first identifies this central idea in the context of the religious and philosophical thinking of Blaise Pascal, then moves on to trace its evolution in the work of Dominique Bouhours, Nicolas Boileau, René Rapin, John Dennis, and Jean-Baptiste Dubos. With the exception of the last two, whose sole focus is sentiment in a human context, these writers are shown to employ the rhetoric of revelation in different ways to describe the means by which one can have knowledge of the transcendental realm through the work of art. Pascal’s criteria for knowing the truths of revelation — turning towards the thinking subject rather than the object of knowledge; appealing to sentiment as the means of knowing; prioritizing the single moment of knowing; allowing for passive acquisition of knowledge; and claiming that all people can possess this knowledge — will recur throughout the book. Thus, in arguing against the notion of a rule-bound French literary canon in the period, and in focusing on the knowledge claims that these early modern thinkers make by embracing a literary language involving the passions and sentiment, Delehanty’s thesis is an original one. The book’s central argument, then, is that the shift towards the transcendental realm pushed the definition of the literary work away from describing its objective properties and towards its epistemological effects on the reader. The inclusion of the English writer, Dennis, is justified because he too privileges the effects on the mind of the believer instead of the substance of the poem and, in so doing, makes way for French authors such as Dubos who will focus only on the mental effects of poetry. Delehanty argues that this will ultimately be the hallmark of aesthetics in the eighteenth century, culminating (although she does not explicitly say so) in the pre-Romantic and Romantic periods. Delehanty knows her subjects well and presents her arguments persuasively; her book is well supported by footnotes and an extensive and comprehensive bibliography. This [End Page 243] study will be found useful by anyone with an interest in the zeitgeist of the early modern period, as well as by those focusing on the writers discussed.