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A Conversation with Author and Literature Scholar Peter Brooks

A 2016 distinguished visiting scholar at the Library of Congress, comparative literature scholar Peter Brooks is writing and researching a new book on how novels relate to history and societal self-understanding, drawing in particular on Flaubert’s novel, “Sentimental Education.” At the Library of Congress, he has been using the collections of the European Reading Room and the Prints and Photographs Division. In this interview with Dan Turello he discusses the appeal of literature, the significance of French social thought, and the importance of living an “examined life.”

Brooks, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University, joined the Princeton University faculty in 2008 as Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar, in the University Center for Human Values and the Department of Comparative Literature. At Princeton he directs a project on “The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism.” He has published on narrative and narrative theory, on the 19th and 20th century novel, mainly French and English, and, more recently, on the interrelations of law and literature. He is also the author of two novels, The “Emperor’s Body” and “World Elsewhere.”

Peter, what drew you to study literature?

Literature was playing hooky from other subjects, it was pleasure, it was reading for the joy of it. Then I discovered you could do that for a profession—maybe a slightly guilty profession, making your pleasure into paid employment. Something of that guilt later drew me to study the intersection of law and literature: study of the language and rhetoric that exercise power in American society. What I think I have learned is that the discipline of slow, careful reading that you learn as a student and teacher of literature can and should be brought to bear on the reading of texts from all sorts of other domains. To read carefully, to interpret rigorously, constitutes something of a professional ethics.

Why France, why the 19th century?

Many young Americans used to (I think a few still do) pass through a phase of adolescent francophilia. When I gained the ability to read in French, I found a literature of ideas that somehow I had been missing. I read Camus, Malraux, Sartre, then Pascal and Montaigne, Voltaire and Rousseau. It was a continuing dialogue about the human condition that seemed always vital in the French tradition. The writer was supposed to be an intellectual as well as a creator: someone ready to engage in debate.

The 19th century? The great moment of the novel: Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and on to Proust. And then the social history of the period, which still seems to me the crucible of the modern, the moment at which what we are today visibly emerges, including the modern sense of individual identity. We are still the children of Darwin and Marx, as also of Rousseau and Freud. Perhaps because French history in the 19th century turns on a series of revolutions, and a continuing conflict over the meaning of the first French Revolution that began in 1789, the individual’s relation to social change and the warring ideologies that go with it was always more immediate and visibly important than in most other countries. The underlying issue of so much 19th-century French fiction is in essence: to whom does France belong? Who shall inherit this country riven between allegiances to tradition and revolution? There is much at stake in these books.

Peter Brooks

Author and literature scholar Peter Brooks, 2016 distinguished visiting scholar at The John W. Kluge Center. Photo courtesy Princeton University.

Why did novels become so popular at this time?

Ever-increasing literacy was of course a key factor: by the end of the 19th century, literacy in France was well over 90%. Popular novels in the 19th century were serialized in the daily newspaper—on the front page—and reached readers from all social classes. They were read (often aloud) at home, in the workplace, in cafes throughout France. The novel was not only pleasurable to read, it responded to a new sense of the importance of history as the context of the individual life. You and your society, and your understanding of your place on earth, came to be grasped essentially in historical terms: we only understand ourselves by understanding how we got to be what we are. Understanding more and more takes on narrative form in the 19th century (Darwin and Marx again), and the novel is the place for dramatizing narrative understanding. The novel implicitly makes the claim that you can understand yourself and society only through narrative process. The great novels really become the basis for how we understand the stories of our own lives—their development, their chapters, their possible meanings.

Is there any way to get away from “story”? Scientific accounts, legal narratives – are they just different kinds of stories?

That’s a vexed question. The promotion of “story” has been so successful that the term has almost ceased to be meaningful. Politicians now all talk of their stories. We are supposed to react to public figures by “liking” the stories of how they came to be where they are. But the overabundant reference to story points to something important that scholars have been talking about since the 1970s: what the late psychologist Jerome Bruner called “the narrative construction of reality.” Narrative is part of our cognitive toolkit, and from very early in childhood we use stories to exchange knowledge and attempt to understand how the world works. Hence what came to be called “narratology,” the analytic study of narrative, its elements, how it works, became an important part of my field. But of course we need to recognize also that there are non-narrative forms of knowing, in science and mathematics, that are irreducible elements of our lives.

Publishing outputs, for fiction and non-fiction, are higher than they ever have been in history. Yet, we hear about a crisis in the humanities. What is it that is in “crisis”?

That’s paradoxical, isn’t it? We are swimming in books (many of them worthless of course, but by no means all of them) and at the same time college students are being told to stay away from the humanities because they lack real-world value. That view needs to be combatted: it rests on a narrow and instrumental definition of “value.” It applies yardsticks to the “value added” by college education that aren’t pertinent to the study of literature and philosophy and musicology, for instance. If you look at a longer run—what a student knows and thinks about twenty-five years out from college, say—I think the humanities reassert their crucial importance. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates claimed, and the humanities are where that examination goes forward.

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