Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Zakir Paul reviews Spoiled Distinctions

Hannah Freed-Thall. Spoiled Distinctions: Aesthetics and the Ordinary in French Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 209 pp.

Review by Zakir Paul

In a fragment on taste, Marcel Proust distinguishes between two sorts of readers. The first kind enjoys charming books like flowers, beautiful days, or lovers. “Others, tormented by an excessive sincerity, spoil their pleasure by wanting to test its depth and justification.”[1]  From his juvenilia onward, Proust explores the critical and expressive possibilities of spoiled aesthetic judgments, while interrupting the ways taste becomes a source of intellectual and social distinction. Rather than being exclusively devoted to the pursuit of art and beauty, Proust emerges from Hannah Freed-Thall’s persuasive reading as a writer interested in exposing the “underside of cultural distinction,” pointing out how distinctions are “made and unmade.” He is joined in this excellent study by Francis Ponge, Nathalie Sarraute, and, more briefly, Yasmina Reza. Freed-Thall brings these authors together to explore a “variety of unclassifiable objects and affects,” drawing attention to how French modernism is attuned to the “ordinariness of things [which] confound critical appraisal.”

The first part of the book, “Aesthetic Disorientation in Proust,” addresses the notion of “prestige” (defined as the “semi-magical production of everyday cultural value”), the “quelconque” or “whatever” (“an overlap of singularity and banality”) and finally “nuance” (a “shimmering, minimal variation”). The second section, “Mid-century experiments,” focuses on Ponge’s awkward “exposed labor of poetic making” and Sarraute’s “douceâtre” or “sickly sweet,” a “minor quotidian form of disgust.” As these categories announce, Spoiled Distinctions operates in a minor key, shunning the beautiful and the sublime for more quotidian notions that make traditional aesthetic terms tremble. The everyday, like the aesthetic sign, is radically ambivalent as it entails both a referential aspect and a flight from conceptual coherence. Freed-Thall innovatively builds upon a constellation of critical writings on affect and aesthetic categories from Eve Kosofky Sedgwick to Sianne Ngai. The introduction elegantly maps her argument, while situating the question of “aesthetic indistinction” in relation to recent studies of modernism and the everyday from Michael Sheringham to Liesl Olson and Siobhan Phillips.

The first chapter, “Prestige,” begins by reading Proust’s pastiches in The Lemoine Affair against the grain. Proust’s parodies of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Henri de Saint-Simon, and others are commonly read by critics as somewhere between a playful farce and a studied attempt by the budding novelist to rid his style of the influence of his predecessors. By focusing instead on their publication in the Figaro and the hoax that they depict—in 1908, Henri Lemoine momentarily conned experts by claiming he could create real diamonds artificially—the chapter underscores Proust’s interest in the volatility of economic and aesthetic value. According to Freed-Thall, pastiches and their dissemination in the newspaper “reveals the cultivation of distinction and the fabrication of art as banal, non-auratic, everyday exercises, and as enchanted practices of absorption and self-loss” (p. 25). In her reading, pastiche replaces metaphor as the key to Proust’s style. The next chapter, “Babble,” focuses on scenes from the Recherche in which the narrator is unable to appropriate sensations in a way that could enable them to redeem the ordinary or grant cohesion to the subject. Against epiphanic and redemptive readings of Proust, Freed-Thall concentrates on mundane scenes—the sight of a chicken on a wet rooftop above a gardener’s shed; the Martinville steeples; the little yellow patch of wall in A View of the Delft—that lead Proust’s characters to stop, stutter, and even die, rather than to masterfully consolidate their aesthetic judgment in a manner capable of producing analytic or social distinction. Much of this reading is directed against the “sublimatory” aesthetics of Time Regained, the final volume of the novel, that attempts to schematize the Proustian project, as well as teleological readings that would take the narrator’s theory of involuntary memory or successive selves as a guide through this fictive world. Unable to shore up the remains of “whatever” sensation into beauty, the passages of Proust’s novel discussed here suggest that we attend instead to nuance, and the scale of radiance that makes the everyday appear both ordinary and invaluable, arresting the “drive toward epistemological (aesthetic or erotic) revelation that often dominates the narrative” (p. 4). Freed-Thall thus shifts the focus from love, memory, and lost time to clouds, hawthorns, and flowers read as “haptic” spaces capable of touching us without being assimilated. Drawing on Roland Barthes and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the third and final chapter devoted to Proust makes its case for “nuance” as form in its “least systematic” and “formless manifestation,” one which nudges the reader toward “gentler and weaker modalities of aesthetic interest” (p. 90).

Ponge and Sarraute come to exemplify these weaker modes of aesthetic interest, although it remains open to question whether they are gentler. The chapter on Ponge does not read Le parti pris des choses, choosing instead to focus on his rag-tag notebook poems, especially the 1941 Mounine, or Note Struck in Afterthought on a Provence Sky and the 1949 Le verre d’eau (A Glass of Water) illustrated by Eugène de Kermadec. Although the chapter opens with Agamben’s notion of “profanation,” the concept yields to close readings that show how Ponge awkwardly belabors the linguistic failures of his poetry in order to “trouble the economic and aesthetic logic that grants the greatest worth to the rarest and least usable things” (p. 112). Stylistically, Freed-Thall notes, these poems teem with failed analogies, near repetition, and reformulations. Ponge’s description of a glass of water, or a tint of sky that provokes an “aesthetic sob” on a bus-ride become part of a larger attempt to divest poetry from extraordinary beauty.

While Ponge inherits Proust’s exploration of babble, Sarraute takes up his sociological investigation into the ways in which judgments of taste constitute a will to distinction. “Sarraute’s Bad Taste” uses Austin’s speech act theory to argue that judgments of taste are failed performatives, utterances unable to muster the universal assent demanded by aesthetic judgment since Immanuel Kant. Read through Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, such supposedly disinterested judgments are instead construed as thinly veiled attempts to situate oneself both in relation to a prestigious aesthetic object (a vaulted kitchen door in The Planetarium or a pre-Columbian statuette in Do You Hear Them?) and other subjects who invariably fail to appreciate the value one seeks to accrue from owning or displaying such things. Sarraute’s characters, like Reza’s, fret and fidget over why their idea of beauty is not shared by others. Their fraught language is overtaken by clichés and fuzzy adjectives. Yet these contests never quite descend into the world of abjection cultivated and theorized by the avant-garde from Georges Bataille to Julia Kristeva. Instead, Sarraute’s readers are left with a cloying aftertaste that Freed-Thall identifies as the “sickly-sweet,” an instance of “the mixed or muddled feelings” that the novelist dubbed “tropisms.”

The afterword plays out the themes of the book using Reza’s “Art” (1994) as a sounding board. In passing, we learn that its translator chose to set the English version of the play in Paris since he could only imagine three adults arguing about a blank painting in France. Freed-Thall comments that much of what Anglophone audiences found funny about the play is its “Frenchness,” specifying that there is more at stake in “Art” than “laughing at the French and their attachment to the ghosts of ancien régime distinction” (p. 145). Readers may wonder what is particularly French about the variant of modernism studied in Spoiled Distinctions. Despite the sustained reliance on Bourdieu, relatively little is said here about the “literary field” of French modernism beyond the claim that it is “particularly concerned with relations among art, social distinction, and everyday life” (p. 12). French language criticism, it is worth noting, largely eschews the category of modernism, preferring to speak either in terms of schools—Symbolists, Surrealists, and others—or to use military metaphors as periodization (avant-garde/arrière-garde, avant-guerre/entre-deux guerres). Is “French modernism,” then, like French theory, an invention of translators and critics writing in English? Finally, how would Freed-Thall’s argument contend with thinkers who challenge Bourdieu’s social critique of judgment? I am thinking, in particular, of Jacques Rancière who considers Distinction as a form of demystification so intent on classifying aesthetic subjects that it denies the power of art to redistribute the sensible in ways that confound the sociological survey and its grid. These queries are hardly meant to fault this subtle, inventive book. Rather, they suggest some of the larger conversations that it may incite at a time when the field of modernist studies remains caught between Anglo-American figures and various models of world literature.

Paradoxically, the more fully Spoiled Distinctions succeeds in making its case for the unsophisticated, the indistinct, and the ordinary, the more it distinguishes itself as a critical performance. Freed-Thall’s project revises the facile categorizations that make more mundane criticism possible. Knowingness remains one of the implicit enemies of this remarkable study, which provides a sustained counterargument for explorative modes of writing and thinking about aesthetic categories and what they imply about those who uphold or elide them. Spoiled Distinctions shows how writers from Proust to Reza temporarily suspend the “aesthetic subject’s quest to prove himself better than other people” allowing the “inestimable worth” of the ordinary to shine forth. It is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the fate of aesthetic judgment in twentieth-century French literature.

[1] Marcel Proust, “La Beauté veritable,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve, ed. Pierre Clarac (Paris, 1971), p. 342.