Speaking at a 2012 literary festival, Jonathan Franzen expertly flattered his audience, sweeping them, himself and the US president into gratifying communion:
One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US.
A ‘real writer type’, too: the young Obama, his early promise detected, was offered, and duly inked, a publishing contract to write his memoirs while still at college.
Released just before an electoral campaign for the Illinois Senate, that book presented the candidate in his now accustomed role: embodiment of triumph over racial prejudice, personification of national healing.
The breadth of presidential interests is, of course, not exhausted by the written word. Its scope encompasses all varieties of Blue State cultural output, visual as well as verbal.
The contours of this aesthetic ecumenicism — a broad-minded taste for Hollywood dross as well as Champaign-Urbana middlebrow — adhere closely to the map of industries granted favourable copyright, patent and intellectual-property protection — now of unprecedented extent and duration — during recent decades.
The Motion Picture Association and the Association of American Publishers both have a friend, attuned to their needs and sensibilities, in the White House.
The cultural pretensions of Democratic presidents, along with their financial contributors and electoral base, have accordingly changed since 1946, when Harry Truman could rail against ‘the “Artists” with a capital A, the parlour pinks and the soprano-voiced men.’
Today press, academy and the well-educated flock to the Democrats.
Amid this reconfiguration — postwar rise of the media and entertainment industries, verbal culture displaced by the visual, fortification of IP as a massive source of royalties and licence revenue — the very role of the writer has been transformed.
Professional distinctions between journalist, writer and scholar have been blurred, publicity pursued and cultural authority lost.
Franzen’s attempt to edify a self-conceived intelligentsia might therefore, at least, prompt one question.
How, examined in the longue durée, has production and reproduction of books and the written word altered the social position of authors? How have the writer’s esteem, prerogatives and benefices altered with his or her workaday techniques, tools of the trade, property rights and proximity to power?
The topic is vast, but some remarks can be made.
To organize any society’s division of labour, a ruling class always depends on technologies of information transmission and storage (e.g. written culture, number systems, monetary tokens, aides memoire).
Thus, in the temple economy of ancient Sumer, writing, numerical notation and arithmetic developed to record and tally units of sheep, wheat, fish, etc. on clay tablets.
Herodotus explained how geometry arose from the Egyptian state’s need to survey and measure land boundaries for apportionment to tenants:
Egypt was cut up; and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, giving an equal square portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year: and if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion, he would come to the king and declare that which had happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less, in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also. For as touching the sun-dial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day, they were learnt by the Hellenes from the Babylonians.
Literate societies, which allow information to be more readily stored externally and transmitted horizontally (e.g. by telegraph) as well as vertically across generations (e.g. training manuals), can deploy a more complex labour process than non-literate ones.
Through the movement of symbols — coins, written messages, titles to deed — separate production units can be coordinated.
Or large-scale collaborative projects, such as architectural or construction works, can be undertaken, with many producers working in parallel under the same roof.
Thanks to writing and other methods of storing information, technological specialties can accrete and be taught to new generations, and society’s labour resources allocated to different concrete tasks.
The ‘disembodied word,’ wrote Ernest Gellner, ‘can be identically present in many, many places.’
The scale of productive labour commanded, and thus the capacity to extract and appropriate a surplus product (e.g. tax-raising or rent), is thereby increased by a system of extendible records such as writing.
The sovereign rulers or elite of such a territory are able to mobilize greater resources (military service, armaments, requisitioned food, etc.) to squander on war or the threat of war, or to administer in peacetime.
Thus the rulers of a literate society will be more likely to succeed in military conflict with external rivals and internal challengers.
Suppose this rudimentary level of literacy reached, as in agrarian societies.
How then has the manner in which manuscripts were copied and books printed influenced matters?
Charlemagne’s Frankish military machine, the most effective in post-Roman Western Europe, and the most ecclesiastically based, was also the first to effectively promote book copying and literary education as part of an official recovery of the classical past and its cultural treasures.
Stung by the humiliations inflicted upon the Merovingians by the tax-raising Umayyad state, the Carolingian court in Aachen — its own fiscal resources modest — opted to undertake an ambitious administrative and education policy.
Late in the eighth century Charlemagne addressed a famous letter to the abbot Baugaulf of Fulda, instructing him to forward copies to every monastery in Francia:
[The] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favour of Christ to our control, in addition to inculcating the culture of letters, also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observation of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly…
For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.
Therefore, each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish, so that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done, as the tongue hastens in the praises of omnipotent God without the hindrances of errors. For since errors should be shunned by all men, so much the more ought they to be avoided as far as possible by those who are chosen for this very purpose alone, so that they ought to be the especial servants of truth.
For when in the years just passed letters were often written to us from several monasteries in which it was stated that the brethren who dwelt there offered up in our behalf sacred and pious prayers, we have recognized in most of these letters both correct thoughts and uncouth expressions; because what pious devotion dictated faithfully to the mind, the tongue, uneducated on account of the neglect of study, was not able to express in the letter without error…
Therefore, we exhort you not only not to neglect the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures.
Since, moreover, images, tropes and similar figures are found in the sacred pages, no one doubts that each one in reading these will understand the spiritual sense more quickly if previously he shall have been fully instructed in the mastery of letters…
Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne describes how the king himself, though barely able to write, joined in the Frankish elite’s recovery of Latin classics and early Christian authorities:
The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was, first of all, to have both boys and girls instructed in the liberal arts, to which he also turned his own attention…
Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.
He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them.
He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.
The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny.
He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.
Alcuin’s letters describe that scholar’s mission, recruited to Aachen as Charlemagne’s ‘restorer of letters’.
There he would salvage and transcribe lost manuscripts, with copying accuracy improved by development of the standardized script known as Carolingian miniscule.
Alcuin would also establish and amass a library of books (Virgil, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), administer abbeys, and teach ‘liberal studies and the holy word’ to the Frankish aristocracy, court officials and clergy.
A common elite culture was thereby transmitted at the Palace School, instructions issued in a language and Church ideology that all ecclesiastic authorities could understand and apply.
Through the serial copying of texts by scribes and notaries, and the teaching of students, this ‘culture of letters’ gradually diffused outward throughout the cathedral schools of the Frankish realm.
Common institutions (incorporated towns, monastery and cathedral schools, Catholic orders) spread from the Rhine-Meuse heartland of the Carolingian lands across Europe.
Latin Christendom’s conquest to the south, in Acquitane, northern Spain and Italy, and to the east in Saxony and the Slavic lands, created social and legal replicas rather than dependencies.
European book production, initially concentrated in the Italian peninsula, took off continent-wide.
A poem by the Archbishop of Mainz conveys some idea of the enthusiasm for scribes, and the written word, among the Carolingian elite:
As God’s kingly law rules in absolute majesty over the wide world
It is an exceedingly holy task to copy the law of God.
This activity is a pious one, unequalled in merit
By any other which men’s hands can perform.
For the fingers rejoice in writing, the eyes in seeing,
And the mind at examining the meaning of God’s mystical words.
No work sees the light which hoary old age
Does not destroy or wicked time overturn:
Only letters are immortal and ward off death
Only letters in books bring the past to life.
Indeed God’s hand carved letters on the rock
That pleased him when he gave his laws to the people,
And these letters reveal everything in the world that is
Has been, or may chance to come in the future.
An ingratiating manner was thus adopted towards the specialist corps of scholars, writers and clerics. Political authority, while chiefly engaged in the sordid business of territorial aggrandizement, relied for its perpetuation and its sense of mission upon scriptural authority, and its codification in writing.
The word was repository of wisdom and legitimating truth. Its custodians should be indulged.
Europe’s urban and commercial efflorescence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked another development of book production.
The Pecia system, using multiple scribes, reduced the time required to reproduce a manuscript by allowing parallel copying of many fragment of the text, rather than a single serial process.
This medieval revival of Roman jurisprudence, making available classical precepts of ownership and contract, was propitious for the growth of West European commodity production, trade and urbanization.
In the more coherently developed Byzantine Empire, centuries earlier, revival of the Justinian Code by Basil I had been accompanied by renewed appreciation for Virgil, Homer and Augustine. The Macedonian Renaissance, with Photius and his famous library, presented a pinnacle then unreachable in backwards Francia. Byzantine state officials were trained in Graeco-Roman classics: Leo the Mathematician taught Aristotelian logic at the Magnaura school.
In the West, however, until the Renaissance the Church served as a ‘special vessel’ that preserved the cultural heritage of classical antiquity, ‘escaping the general wreckage to transmit the mysterious messages of the past to the less advanced future… the indispensable bridge between two epochs.’
In our own day, the practice of copying information has become more important to social production.
First lauded by Daniel Bell in the 1970s, the ‘information economy’ was the subject of more sustained and thoroughgoing ideological celebration in the 1990s, with industrial capitalism receiving bouquets for having overcome its material constraints and resource limits.
Of course, as with much else, the economic contribution made by copying information was identified long ago by Charles Babbage.
Replacement of the scribe (a serial process of copying) by the printing press and moveable type brought rapid increase in the productivity of information copying:
Printing from moveable types… is the most important in its influence of all the arts of copying.
It possesses a singular peculiarity, in the immense subdivision of the parts that form the pattern. After that pattern has furnished thousands of copies, the same individual elements may be arranged again and again in other forms, and thus supply multitudes of originals, from each of which thousands of their copied impressions may flow.
This set the scene for generalized literacy among the educated workforce required by industrial capitalism. And it ensured, for a time, the supremacy of verbal culture.
Outside the printing industry itself, mass production using interchangeable parts has, since the mid-19th century, depended on replication of standardized products made to precise tolerances. (This, in turn, makes possible the development of numerical-control machine tools, replacing jigs and fixtures.)
Copying technology in manufacturing has more recently been refined by optical and UV lithography.
Today’s books, images, recorded music and software are transmitted rapidly and in parallel using Unicode and ASCII.
Information (e.g. a sequence of words) is liberated from its dependence on any particular medium or embodiment in a specific material artifact (e.g. typeset document). Written text may be duplicated at will.
Any such item of text, able to be reproduced at low cost, must therefore become copyright if it is to be remain property and yield monetary reward.
This raises the question of the author as independent producer.
When does the writer retain property rights to his or her product?
Especially since the 1970s, copyright law has decreed that employees, or those contractors working for hire, waive ownership rights over their creative work to the commissioning or employing entity (publisher, studio, ad agency).
Staff journalists or advertising writers, for example, have no property claims in their published works, which belong instead to the periodical or agency that employs or contracts them (some exceptions apply).
Freelance writers, too, while nominally independent contractors and thus entitled to copyright, are in bargaining terms at the mercy of publishers: ‘if [writers] do not capitulate and assign rights to such conglomerates they risk being blacklisted.’
This divestment of authorship has accomplished a sharp change in the social position of writers, who had hitherto, in some measure, been independent producers: owning their own tools of the trade, working under their own direction rather than that of supervisors, preserving rights to their output and whatever fruits it might yield.
‘The author isn’t dead’, wrote Catherine Fisk, reaching for a clever epigram and duly finding it: ‘he just got a job.’
Unfortunately, as if in a company-man dystopia, he has been subsumed into the identity of his corporate employer. His disappearance is by now almost complete. Although he has gone on writing, the corporation has become the author of his oeuvre…
[Modern] creativity is exercised in an employment setting where salaried creators sign away their rights in their work as a condition of hire — sign away, in effect, their very status as authors.
In this ‘corporatization of creativity’, there is an echo of the fate of the salaried engineer, brought into a collective work team by growth of the patent system.
The frustration of independent invention led the majority of inventors into the research laboratories of the large corporations; in the process, invention itself was transformed…
Inventors became employees in corporations to spare themselves the hardship of going in alone. Their patents were thereby handled by corporation-paid patent lawyers and their inventions were made commercially viable at corporate expense. Corporate employment thus eliminated the problem of lawsuits, and in addition provided well-equipped laboratories, libraries and technical assistance for research. The nature of their actual work, however, had changed…
By employing the technical experts capable of producing inventions, the corporations were also obtaining the legally necessary vehicles for the accumulation of corporate patents…
In time… employees became required to assign all patent rights to their employer, as part of their employment contracts, in return for their salaries.
The writer’s reduced circumstances in the world have been accompanied by a marked decline in the quality of authorial output.
Little published in the decades following the Second World War stands comparison with the tightly bunched sequence of totems released after the First: works by Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Valéry, Mayakovsky all appearing within a few years of each other.
Fredric Jameson notes the social mutations behind this post-1945 fall-off in novelistic standards — a decline everywhere grudgingly conceded but rarely dwelt upon.
The great modernist seers, not least in their own self-mythology, were independent producers, retaining an artisanal autonomy of routine, if not hieratic ritual. Pen and paper offered a self-sufficient cloister from the industrial economy of plastics, electronics and chemical factories.
These droits de l’auteur were usurped as their literary successors, obliged to do paid journalism or media work in whatever measure, have been drawn into capitalist social relations:
[There] is a deeper reason for the disappearance of the Great Writer under postmodernism, and it is simply this, sometimes called “uneven development”: in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of increasing institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself.
Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.
Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally; and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it exercised a fascination by way of the image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.
Joyce in his rooms in Paris singlehandedly produces a whole world, all by himself and beholden to no one; but the human beings in the streets outside those rooms have no comparable sense of power and control, of human productivity; none of the feeling of freedom and autonomy that comes when, like Joyce, you can make or at least share in making your own decisions.
As a form of production, then, modernism (including the Great Artists and producers) gives off a message that has little to do with the content of the individual works: it is the aesthetic as sheer autonomy, as the satisfactions of handicraft transfigured.
Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen): the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history — handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance.
The history of early twentieth-century avant-gardes in the visual arts — easel painting stretching the limits of handicraft creativity in response to the new commercial technologies of photography, cinema and television — seems to confirm this diagnosis.
But the written word has been cheaply reproducible for centuries. The printing press was invented long before sound recording or disc pressing.
Why then should authors have suddenly submitted to the depredations and indignity of the employment relationship? Why relinquish a purely commercial transaction for a relationship of command and subordination?
The background to this loss of social esteem can be plotted briefly.
The writer of ‘independent means’ — beneficiary of family fortunes and legacies, of a gebildet European bourgeoisie happy to subsidize the artistic careers of its wayward sons — had dwindled in number by the mid-twentieth century, cancelled along with the aristocracy whose ‘high culture’ the business classes were trying to ape.
In a 1946 radio broadcast, E.M. Forster described the workings of this vanished world of Mann, Gide, Proust, Zweig and himself: ‘In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts.’
He surmised, correctly, its obsolescence.
Creative-writing programmes, residencies, fellowships and institutional grants provided new homes in the academy, and birthed the postwar genre of campus novel. (Prescribed syllabuses meanwhile supplied a market for books that, lacking sufficient buyers, might otherwise have gone unpublished.)
State bureaucracies, massively swelled by warfare and welfare state, absorbed others into officialdom and public administration. (Proust had recommended a comfortable, undemanding sinecure as the ideal occupation for an author.)
The result today is that all writers, even the most exalted, must resort to journalism or occasional teaching. Journalists are therefore tempted to suppose themselves writers — indeed the more successful, receiving grants from university, foundation or think tank, as interim scholars.
For writers, this coming down in the world reaches its culmination with the insistence, courtesy of a copyright lawyer at Google, that the notion of sole creative authorship has always been a myth. The ‘romantic’ notion of the author disguises the reality of artistic collaboration, bricolage and cheerful plagiarism.
Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic.
(Of course, Patry rather misses the point: in commercial terms, appellation of authorship is akin to indication of geographical origin, e.g. of wine or cheese, an identifying badge which is recognized under the TRIPS Agreement as similar to trademark or certification.)
Today the ‘creative industries’ — so named by their publicists — are presented as a smart new engine of economic growth, the swelling revenue of Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast and Time Warner an example of twenty-first century conditions favouring the intelligent over the dim.
The ‘creative economy’ and ‘cultural industries’ are now topics of urgent reports by UNCTAD and UNESCO, not to mention a cottage industry of scholarship, popular publications and municipal boosterism.
In reality, the high incomes of media, software and pharmaceutical firms are a form of rent based on access denial and control. This is a business model familiar from the land enclosures of the British agricultural revolution.
Patent royalties, copyright fees, licence revenue, etc. — not to mention the income earned by lawyers and agents securing such arrangements — derive not from any new productive powers or technological innovations, but from asserting exclusive property rights, and thereby securing claim over a revenue stream.
The grotesquely concentrated market of book publishing — Pearson, Bertelsmann, Lagardère and a handful of other giant houses commanding the global scene — is exemplary.
Proletarianization of the author, as with the academic scholar, therefore signals not an explosion of knowledge, but its seizure and sequestration.
Along with prolonged copyright and trademark protection, the other half of the ‘creative industry’ business model is contributed by network externalities. Low costs of reproduction, and uniformity of customer tastes, allow multiplication of copies to any number of users.
The presence of more buyers raises the value of the original copy. With greater scale comes increasing returns.
A handful of market-cornering ‘superstars’ prosper; the eager but unloved proliferate.
‘Content’ production and transmission are therefore encouraged only to the extent they can be subdued and corralled by publishing platforms and distributors. The volume of writing solicited is unprecedented (e.g. content farms), but the channel clogged with noise (recycled articles, duplicated material). The proportion of people reading books of any type has declined.
Amid this scene, the pose struck by Franzen — himself as Voltaire or Maupertuis at Frederick the Great’s Prussian court — provides buffoonish relief.
What, finally, of Franzen’s panegyric of Obama as literary patron and cultural custodian?
One of the cherished fantasy-images of postmodern politics is that of an intelligentsia, hitherto a marginalized and downtrodden caste, restored to social prominence and installing one of its own in the chancellery.
Havel in Prague provides a euphoric example, as does the short-lived spectacle of ‘civil society’, journalists and economists in Poland and post-Soviet Russia, celebrating their own professional guild-values as foundations for a new society.
The ur-reference of these contemporary fantasies is 1848, when the poets and novelists of European romanticism — Manzoni, Petöfi, Mickiewicz — played starring roles for national movements in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy. For mid-nineteenth century romantic nationalism, language was the bearer of heritage, providing a cultural basis for political unity.
Such rhetoric, now hopelessly archaic but guaranteeing a prominent role for the national bard (e..g Milan Kundera), was revived with the breakup of the Soviet Union and other multi-ethnic states, the return of private ownership dressed up as a Springtime of Peoples.
In the 1990s such visions spread outwards from the newly capitalist countries, an elixir to replenish the threadbare ideological cupboards of the old. Their compensatory function is obvious for European and North American intellectuals suffering the aesthetic degradation and social indignities of globalized advanced capitalism, as described above.
Reality is, of course, unkind to this daydream of a renewed social alliance between belles-lettres and state authority.
As with his peers abroad — the parvenu crassness of Sarkozy springs to mind — today’s US president, educated at a private prep school worth over $300 million, is instead anxious to flaunt his social kinship with ‘savvy businessmen.’
In such a scene, letters today barely sustain even a vestigial role as elite decoration or philanthropic point d’honneur.
Literature has, of course, rarely drawn the attention of wealthy patrons. It lacks the monumentality and civic resplendence of architecture; cannot offer the networking opportunities and social prestige of the opera house or gallery board of directors; easily duplicated, it does not yield the returns on investment of the one-of-a-kind painting.
Yet if sponsors have always been scarce, membership of the propertied classes has, in previous epochs, meant an obligatory amount of taste, learning, connoisseurship, and reverence towards literary matters.
Books were favoured as a luxury appurtenance, patronized and consumed for ornamentation and exhibitions of status, to be sure — but also were a matter of elite self-conception, recruitment and social functioning.
In 1808 Napoleon — his Grande Armée having brought emancipation of the Prussian peasantry, state certification of teachers and foundation of Berlin University — took time out from the Congress of Erfurt to grant a breakfast-time audience with Goethe.
Goethe recounted this episode in a conversation with Eckermann:
“But,” continued he, gaily, “pay your respects. What book do you think Napoleon carried in his field library? — My Werther!”
“We may see by his levee at Erfurt,” said I, “that he had studied it well.”
“He had studied it as a criminal judge does his documents,” said Goethe, “and in this spirit talked with me about it. In Bourrienne’s work there is a list of the books which Napoleon took to Egypt, among which is Werther. But what is worth noticing in this list, is the manner in which the books are classed under different rubrics. Under the head Politique, for instance, we find the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran; by which we see from what point of view Napoleon regarded religious matters.”
The three versions of this meeting (recorded by Talleyrand, Friedrich von Müller and Goethe himself) were recorded by Luise Mühlbach in her historical novel Napoleon and the Queen of Prussia:
Napoleon, continuing to eat, beckoned Goethe, with a careless wave of his hand, to approach.
He complied, and stood in front of the table, opposite the emperor, who looked up, and, turning with an expression of surprise to Talleyrand, pointed to Goethe, and exclaimed, “Ah, that is a man!” An imperceptible smile overspread the poet’s countenance, and he bowed in silence.
“How old are you, M. von Goethe?” asked Napoleon.
“Sire, I am in my sixtieth year.”
“In your sixtieth year, and yet you have the appearance of a youth! Ah, it is evident that perpetual intercourse with the muses has imparted external youth to you.”
“Sire,” said Daru, “M. von Goethe has also translated Voltaire’s Mahomet.”
“That is not a good tragedy,” said Napoleon. “Voltaire has sinned against history and the human heart. He has prostituted the character of Mohammed by petty intrigues. He makes a man, who revolutionized the world, act like an infamous criminal deserving the gallows. Let us rather speak of Goethe’s own work—of the Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read it many times, and it has always afforded me the highest enjoyment; it accompanied me to Egypt, and during my campaigns in Italy, and it is therefore but just that I should return thanks to the poet for the many pleasant hours he has afforded me.”
During the late Roman empire, Symmachus had declared in a letter that his senatorial elite were the ‘better part of the human race.’ Though idle and landed, Roman aristocrats had to be familiar with Virgil and Juvenal.
Such, indeed, was the cultural pedigree later drawn upon by bourgeois revolutionaries, for whom such distant treasures of the past remained legible, banners and elevated slogans to be salvaged from history, then used to embellish contemporary campaigns.
Dutch republicans sought to vindicate their revolt against Philip II’s Spanish yoke with arguments from Aristotle, Roman thinkers and the Bible. The English Revolution drew its language from the Bible.
In France, said Marx, ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire’:
Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases…
Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.
But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.
Postmodern culture, of course, famously knows its own share of dress-up, pastiche and nostalgic revival.
Franzen’s grotesque embrace of Karl Kraus shows this: an example of nostalgia for the aesthetic, and of commercial culture’s wish to salvage from unprofitable ‘obscurity’ a peculiarly stringent and unassimilable modernism.
But — appropriately for a Restoration era that denies any future prospect of change — this decorative relationship to the past is enfeebling rather than stimulating. If it is to be drawn upon, any historical item must first be converted into a fashion plate, suitable for collection and ornamentation, the merest patina and embellishment.
Thus in literary necromancy, too, yesterday’s priests are replaced by today’s cheap hucksters.
The ‘past brought to life’ can involve little genuine connection to a shared cultural heritage, the latter now hopelessly remote and irrelevant. It follows instead the relentless, rhythmic turnover of the fashion cycle.