The Scandal of the Classics

Oeuvres Complètes, Volume 5: Ecrits sur la musique, la langue et le théâtre

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2,004 pp., 495 FF

The Anatomy of Melancholy, Volumes I–III

by Robert Burton
Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 2,034 pp., $160.00 (Volume I), $125.00 (Volume II), $125.00 (Volume III)

Oeuvres, Volume 2

by Marquis de Sade
Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1,447 pp., 360 FF

Sämtliche Werke, Band 7/I and 7/II

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1,976 pp., 240 DM (cloth); 292 DM (leather)

Werke, Band 3: Politische Schriften

by Bettina von Arnim
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1,034 pp., 148 DM (cloth); 273 DM (leather)


A museum, it is now generally realized, deforms and disfigures the works of art it contains. It wrenches the pictures and statues out of the churches, palaces, and homes from which they drew their life and much of their significance, and exhibits them in an apparently neutral space, an intellectual void. Some of their functions have been wiped out, a good part of their meaning is lost. The walls have a color and texture different from the ones that originally set off the works of art, so that the harmony of the paint and the marble has been denatured, the space in which the art presents itself to the spectator has been altered. Although we may celebrate the uncanny aptitude of the objects in a museum to adapt to their new home, to present new aspects and even to convey some of the old meanings, historians deplore the inevitable loss that the institution entails. Nevertheless, we cannot do without museums: if they alter the meaning of the past beyond repair, they allow some of it to survive.

Literature, of course, survives physically with greater ease. We do not need to exhibit books: they lie peacefully on the shelves of libraries, and need only a minimum of heat and humidity control so that they do not crumble or rot. There is one function of the museum, however, imperfectly exercised by the library or only haphazardly exercised. The museum conserves the past by suppressing part of it: works of art are divided into those worth seeing and junk, the latter consigned to the reserve cellars when it is not shipped out and sold. Our knowledge of the past demands this suppression in order to be manageable. We cannot look at every picture, read every book; critical evaluation is not so much ideological as practical. Some of the past has to be suppressed for the rest to become visible. But it is just this suppression that has understandably and sometimes justifiably given rise to protest in our times.

For literature, the counterpart of the museum is not the library but the uniform edition of the classics, the publication of the “canon” in a hard-bound, permanent form to be kept on their shelves by the well-to-do and even the less well-off but more ambitious and appreciative readers. These regimented volumes with their similar bindings give their owners a satisfying sense of culture, and define that part of our heritage invested with an aura of prestige. Today, however, large parts of the population in many countries are alienated from a culture they feel has been imposed upon them. There is agreement from all sides that the canon in art, literature, and music needs revision, although less agreement on what kind of revision and even less understanding of how revision might be accomplished. Dragging the neglected artist or writer out of obscurity does not inevitably result in acceptance. The editions of the classics that still manage to survive today reveal the difficulties both of revising the canon and of making long-accepted figures presentable or even legible to the disaffected modern reader.

These uniform editions date back to the late Renaissance, when the Dutch publishing house of Elzevir made the Latin and even some of the Greek classics available in the convenient but elegant pocket format useful for traveling; no gentleman could afford to be without some of these volumes. It is, however, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were the great ages of printing the classics in the vulgar tongue. Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets was written as the prefaces to a publishing venture intended to contain all the English poetry worth reading. Almost all female poets were omitted, of course, and so was John Donne, but a place was found for him a few years later when the series was taken up by other publishers. Alexander Chalmers’s twenty-two large volumes in small print and double columns put a huge body of verse within reach of the general public. Other series in England were published in imitation; publishers in other countries followed suit.

By the twentieth century the Modern Library in America, Everyman’s Library and the Oxford English Texts in Britain, Insel in Germany, Gallimard’s Pléiade imprint, and Mondadori, Laterza, and Ricciardi in Italy were on the way to making a reasonably complete representation of the national classics of each country. Today, however, most of these ventures have been virtually abandoned. (It is true that the Modern Library and Everyman’s have been revived, but with nothing like the old ambition.) The great German publishing house Suhrkamp, famous for its stable of post-World War II avant-garde writers, has initiated a new classical imprint, with complete works of the principal German authors in elegant, large-pocket-size volumes that resemble the Pléiade and old Insel formats, but it is meeting with considerable financial difficulties in carrying out the announced program. There is, in fact, a growing uncertainty about how a project of this kind should be pursued. Only the Library of America, created a decade ago partly in response to the demand of Edmund Wilson that American classics be made accessible to the average reader, and the French Pléiade series continue to publish according to plan in any meaningful fashion, and even they reveal the strains to which such ventures are now subject.

Some recent publications expose the contemporary embarrassment. The Pléiade has finally ended its complete edition of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with a fifth volume largely containing the writings on music. The first four volumes were rapidly published between 1959 and 1969. The final volume has taken more than twenty-five years, and it is the only unsatisfactory element of what has been until now the ideal edition of a French classic.

Rousseau is a fascinating and repulsive author. A man of undeniable charm, he longed for the experience of being betrayed by those for whom he had the greatest affection and admiration. There is hardly one of his friends whom he did not accuse of disloyalty: most of them did, indeed, end by slandering him and trying to destroy his career and his influence. This influence was, in fact, enormous. In politics, philosophy, aesthetics, and literature, he was a writer of great eloquence, arguably the most important figure of the eighteenth century in France. His work is embedded in the events of his own present and in the future as well. He is consequently easy to read and difficult to understand, almost impossible to assess. Democrat or proto-fascist, Romantic or neoclassical, disconcertingly honest or diabolically deceitful, even self-deceiving—all of this applies, but he cannot be circumscribed or defined by any of it.

This makes an intelligent commentary indispensable for an edition of Rousseau. His ideas are bound up with his biography to an extent that those of his contemporaries Voltaire and Kant, for example, are not, and we need to know as well what posterity made of these ideas before we can comprehend how they can speak to us. In this respect, the first four volumes of the new edition are exemplary. The publisher, Gallimard, was forced to adhere to a very high standard of scholarship by the sponsors of the edition, which include Rousseau’s native city of Geneva. The commentary was impeccable and lavish, the text reproduced Rousseau’s original, including his idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, and the changes he made in his text were given so that one could follow the development of his thought.

This cannot be said of the new volume. Some of the individual texts are given with the same earlier care: particularly admirable is Jean Starobinski’s introduction to and commentary on the Essay on the Origin of Language. The largest work printed here, however, is Rousseau’s Dictionary of Music, presented with some explanatory essays and also a splendid introduction by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (justly famous as the most distinguished Chopin scholar we have), but with no detailed commentary and without any of the variant readings that all the other works in the edition have received.

The lack of commentary is disastrous. I find it very difficult to read parts of Rousseau’s articles on music, since eighteenth-century harmonic terminology is archaic and very specialized, and requires an intimate familiarity with the professional language. Most musicians and amateurs of music will also find some of it almost unintelligible. The absurdity of printing a long text in a way that leaves it inaccessible to most of the readers who will purchase the volume evidently did not strike the publisher.

In addition, many of the articles in the dictionary were originally written for the famous Encyclopedia edited by Diderot and D’Alembert. When Rousseau reprinted them in his musical dictionary, he revised them considerably; his feud with the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau had grown in acerbity, and his attacks on Rameau grew more violent. Except for one sample article, the original versions are not given in the new volume. No one will read Rousseau’s Dictionary of Music to find out about music; it is of interest today only to learn about Rousseau. In this case, his changes of mind are as important as his final statements, particularly since all of them are partially determined by what had happened in his life, which enemies he had most recently made.

He was a musician of very little talent but of extraordinary prestige and influence. A short cantata he had composed was snubbed cruelly by Rameau, who said the melody was incompetent and the accompaniment plagiarized from Italian music: there was something to both these judgments. Nevertheless, his little operetta, The Village Soothsayer, had an immense success: its exaggeratedly naive melodies made it a model of popular neoclassical taste. Rousseau’s subordination of everything in music—harmony and counterpoint, above all—to the simplest form of melody was an interesting early version of the dogmatic reaction to modernist complexity displayed by recent proponents of minimalism.

The final Pléiade volume was badly planned. It has almost two thousand pages, and the publisher will no doubt allege that it was the lack of space that made the edition of the dictionary almost useless by denying it the necessary commentary. However, the letter to D’Alembert on the theater in Geneva should have been in an earlier volume with The Village Soothsayer, and the few scientific writings here could have been placed with the essays on botany. That would have made room for the variants and a decent commentary. It was a pity to spoil the most satisfactory edition of a major French writer.

Another recent publication in the same Pléiade series is volume II of the works of the Marquis de Sade, containing the novel Justine with all three versions complete (each one more obscene than the last) and an elaborate commentary. It would seem that the Marquis is at last to enter the pantheon of edifying French authors along with Rousseau, Balzac, Racine, Proust, et al. This has understandably been greeted with mixed feelings in some quarters, since the Marquis’s pornography is strictly hard-core. However, in reality, the Marquis de Sade has been a part of the canon of great authors for a long time, although there was a certain reluctance to admit this publicly. His reputation stayed underground until well into the twentieth century (French justice ordered the destruction of his books as recently as 1957), but already in the early nineteenth he was read and exploited by Chateaubriand, Hugo, and Lamartine. Flaubert was delighted by him and kept a copy of his works in the guest room, and he became a hero to the Surrealists.

It is true that Sade does not write particularly well: at least, his style is not seductive. He has neither the breathtaking verve of Pietro Aretino, the greatest of all pornographers, nor the cynical charm of eighteenth-century smut like Fanny Hill. This lack of literary talent is largely irrelevant. I think it would be out of place to demand a stylistically engaging description of the joys of raping a small child or of pulling out all the teeth of a beautiful woman. On the contrary, stylistic pleasures would only confuse the issue. What Sade’s work proposes urgently is the delight of naked cruelty independent of any aesthetic cover or charm.

Sade forces his readers to think what most of them would prefer to believe unthinkable. The sober matter-of-factness of Sade’s description of horrors was revolutionary; his tortures are neither colorful nor picturesque. They are more or less the average day-dreams of every ordinary masochist and sadist, and even of a great many people who would not like to classify themselves as either. Acts of torture have been committed throughout history, and they were basic to the judicial process for both Church and state as well as to the treatment of civilians by an occupying army; but the inspired originality of Sade was to introduce the excesses of cruelty systematically into the vast corpus of erotic literature which played such an important role in eighteenth-century culture. He was the first to perceive the sexual import of cruelty and torture for the specifically literary imagination.

Perhaps not the first. The fifteenth-century trial of Gilles de Rais is well known, and the surviving documents have been published. This close companion of Joan of Arc raped and murdered dozens of children; his crimes were fully reported, and they read like some of Sade’s more extravagant imaginings. (He was accused of hanging the children, cutting them down just in time to console and cuddle them, and then hanging them again.) It has, however, been recently suggested that the details of these crimes were imagined and invented by the inquisitors, and that the witnesses were carefully schooled, the confession of Gilles dictated. If this is so, the inquisitors anticipated the literary efforts of Sade by three centuries.

Sade was able to carry out very few of his reveries and none of the extravagant ones.1 The actions current in the strange world of S&M make those that he actually committed look by comparison like the experiments of a timid beginner; his sadism was almost purely literary. In his writing he revealed the need to defile and disfigure whatever appeared beautiful and pure, and he expressed the desire to be defiled and tortured himself, but there is little realism, little sense of what it would feel like to carry through the ingenious lists of tortures he compiles: in everyday life, even spectacular sadistic acts must be often as disappointing and as unsatisfyingly monotonous as any other form of sex. In fact, the novels of the Marquis tell us little about actual sexual behavior, but they reveal with great power the nature of desire. It is curious that the imagination of the judges of Gilles de Rais was cast in the same mold, if indeed some of his imputed crimes were purely literary inventions from the erotic imagination of the most respectable lawyers.

Whatever literary value one puts on Sade’s novels (and they are as repellent as they are fascinating—indeed, fascinating because they are so sordid), in their sober lack of passion they are instructive. They reveal the paradoxical seduction of the most sordid aspects of the imagination. It is, in fact, his coldness which is most original. In its sobriety and intensity, his work attains the monumental sublime: in his refusal to dress up his descriptions in the traditional baroque eloquence or the pretty euphemisms of previous erotic writing, Sade is a neoclassical artist of his time, a contemporary of David.

Essentially, however, his work is important not as an unveiling of new truths but as a demonstration of how the old ones secretly operated in Western culture. Already in the sixteenth century, Montaigne, considerably expanding traditional religious doctrine, remarked that public institutions as well as private lives are held together by vices—including cruelty, “that bitter-sweet prick of malignant sensuality at seeing someone suffer—and children feel it… Whoever takes away [these vices] removes the fundamental conditions of human existence.” The world of sadomasochism is surrounded with a sinister and largely unmerited glamour, as if it took place in smokefilled opium dens. But it is a much more commonplace affair and interacts with our everyday lives. When I was writing a review of Alban Berg’s correspondence, I remarked to an elderly and very distinguished psychoanalyst that I was surprised by how many of Schoenberg’s students seemed to enjoy being so badly treated and humiliated by him. She replied, “I have no time to explain this just now, but I can assure you that there are a great many masochists and not nearly enough sadists to go around.”

In the eighteenth century, the erotic interest of pain became explicit, but Sade was the first to investigate the erotic implications of all vice, including simple humiliation. With his obsessive clearsightedness he was a moral and edifying artist. He is very much in tune with our politically correct age, and he would certainly have enthusiastically agreed with Andrea Dworkin that all sexual intercourse is basically an act of violence and rape. He insisted that the political liberty won by the French revolution was incomplete and even meaningless without sexual freedom. This is a profound truth that presents insoluble problems, but who would maintain that there are any easy or permanent solutions for a civilized society? Above all, Sade is impressive because he makes hypocrisy almost impossible to sustain in considering the erotic imagination. There are many reasons for thinking that pornography does not actually stimulate or inspire sadistic acts, and if this is the case, Sade’s work might reasonably be made required reading for high-school students (he is perhaps a bit strong for the elementary level). It is good to see that he has been incorporated into the canon, but it would not have worked if he had not in fact been there all the time.


The Pléiade is the only financially successful series today that attempts to present a nation’s literary heritage in a relatively complete way in authoritative texts with adequate commentaries for the modern reader. The volumes are easily portable, and printed on the thin paper the French call Bible paper—which aptly symbolizes the sacred character of the canonized authors. The books are all bound in leather, perhaps in reminiscence of the primitive ritual of sacrificing an animal to honor a holy figure. The irresponsibly grudging economy that spoiled the last volume of Rousseau crops up elsewhere in the series. Gallimard refused to include the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal in the two-volume Baudelaire, although it is a very different book from the second edition, and would have added only fifty pages to volumes each of more than a thousand pages. The correspondence of Baudelaire is printed without the answers to the letters, and a similarly absurd policy prevails with the correspondence of Voltaire, which makes those letters only half as interesting and one tenth as intelligible as they might have been. The publisher, however, has succeeded in getting the series well represented in most of the bookstores in France, and it makes up a substantial part of the house’s income. Above all, it is a considerable force in the preservation of French culture.

The volumes of the Library of America, by contrast, are heftier and the commentary is generally reduced to a minimum. The text is always admirably established by the latest bibliographical methods, giving the reader a guarantee of authenticity. Important figures, however, often go unidentified (one cannot, for example, expect the average reader to know that the Alexander von Humboldt to whom Thomas Jefferson writes is a famous geographer, world traveler, and writer on science), and there is no commentary on the works, their reception, or the intellectual climate in which they developed, almost nothing about the words and ideas that have changed their significance since a book first appeared. It is, of course, splendid to have the complete works of so many American authors available at last. The editors’ introductions, nevertheless, are austere and self-denying, and concern mainly the way the text was established. Why should the readers not be given some critical guidance, some indication of the critical fortunes, the reception, of the poems of Whitman, the stories and essays of Poe, the novels of Henry James? They can still wander around on their own through the complete works and find new points of interest.

In Britain, the principal series of critical texts of the classical English authors, the Oxford English Texts, has been deliberately made inaccessible by pricing the volumes beyond the means of almost all readers. More than a decade ago Oxford University Press decided to aim only at sales to libraries, and set the price so high that even libraries can no longer afford to acquire the books. Those libraries that continue to buy these important critical editions find themselves having to sacrifice other important purchases. The first three volumes of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy will set the purchaser back $310. They contain the complete text and the variant readings, leaving the critical commentary to the last two volumes yet to be printed.2 The appearance of this fascinating, eccentric, and genially poetic work is very handsome, but the price of the book has certainly been inflated by the absurd lavishness with which the variant readings have been presented. In Volume III, 302 pages out of 777 are devoted to the variants printed in large type, reading generally as follows:

62:5 knowe not how truly] 32; rather thinke slaunders 21U; know not how truely 21; knowe not how truely 24; knowe not how truly 28; know not how truly 38–51.

273:12 apart,] 38–51; a-part 24–32; a part 21

A few variants are perhaps a bit more suggestive:

219:10 he loves,] 24–51; if another mans wife, 21

170:11 in both sexes?] +24

I do not want to appear philistine, and I hasten to admit that any bibliographical detail is potentially fascinating, no matter how trivial, but the number of readers in the world who want to plow through more than three hundred pages of variants of spelling and punctuation must be fewer than a dozen. This elite and peculiar handful of scholars could have been accommodated by printing these variants in thirty pages of very small print in place of the comfortably large type, and this would have gone a long way to reducing the outrageous price of these volumes. When we remark the list of grants in the acknowledgments that financed this publication (including, of course, the National Endowment for the Humanities) we must deplore the waste of taxpayers’ money—not on research, which has its own justification, but on the format of publication: only a publisher receiving a large subsidy would even consider printing variants on so pretentious a scale. No doubt there are not many potential readers of a work as esoteric as The Anatomy of Melancholy, and the publishers may plan to cater to them eventually with an unnaturally expensive paperback on unpleasantly cheap paper. Nevertheless, a responsible publication of an old author should serve both the research scholar and the common reader. Only that will keep a writer like Burton alive. His meditation on medical science, psychology, philosophy, and religion still ranks among the most fascinating of the English classics.


All the major series of Italian classics (Mondadori, Ricciardi, Rizzoli, Laterza, etc.) have been closed down, most of them in midstream—the complete works of Pietro Aretino in Mondadori’s series have stopped after two books of letters out of six, and when the final volume of Boccaccio was recently published, almost all the other volumes had gone out of print, permanently it would appear. In Germany, however, the major publishing house of postwar philosophy and criticism, Suhrkamp, decided about ten years ago to publish the German classics and replace the elegant volumes of Insel. A new imprint was launched, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, with an extraordinarily ambitious program: most of the major German authors, and several of the minor ones, in complete or almost complete editions with an elaborate commentary. The publishing house that had made its name with Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, T.W. Adorno, Peter Szondi, and so many others now proposed forty volumes of Goethe, twelve of Schiller, eleven of Herder, and several dozen others with different series representing medieval, Baroque, Renaissance and eighteenth-century literature, six volumes of art history, twenty-eight of politics and history—more than 250 volumes in all, which were to have been completed in a little over a decade and with further campaigns in view.

The project came at an unlucky moment: a dozen years ago university libraries around the world found themselves with considerably reduced funds, and the price of paper rose astronomically. Today, with little more than 130 volumes issued, publication has slowed, and new books are appearing as much as several years later than promised.

The standards of scholarship and the concern to make the texts both intelligible and agreeable to the modern reader are on a much higher level than in either the Pléiade or the Library of America. The annotation is full and printed at the end in the same typeface as the main texts, and not, as in the French series, in very small type tiring to read. A description of the genesis of each work is given along with selections from contemporary reviews as well as an account of its critical fortunes up to the present. Different versions of the same work are generally presented, often on facing pages to make comparison simple. Spelling is modernized except when it reflects the contemporary pronunciation, and the original punctuation is preserved. Letters and documents not meant for publication are reproduced diplomatically—that is, with all the author’s spelling mistakes and eccentric punctuation carefully preserved.

The two volumes of Goethe’s poetry, for example, print all the poems in chronological order in the original version of the manuscript when available; in addition, however, whenever Goethe made a collection of his verse, the entire collected edition is reprinted. Some of the poems, therefore, appear several times, often in new forms, and one can see the development of many of the poems as well as the different ways that Goethe wanted them arranged and presented to the public. With a very full commentary at the end, this edition makes it unnecessary for scholars to own any other, and the common reader is also richly served and can enjoy the poetry in whatever version pleases best. It is hard to see how this editorial policy could be improved.

The new edition of Faust restores many of the readings of the original and much of its appearance. The elaborate commentary by Albrecht Schöne is the principal glory of this new publication. What is most remarkable is the summary of the different interpretations to which Faust has been subjected for two centuries, and above all, the discussion of the various ways in which Faust was to be received: seen in the theater, read to oneself, or listened to as it was read aloud, with the audience imagining the possible stagings—it is, indeed, in this last form that Goethe’s contemporaries made their first contact with the work through the many private readings by the author during the decades in which he withheld the work from publication.

The publishers of this series have made few attempts to enlarge the pantheon of acceptable authors. The three volumes of the works of Bettina von Arnim (with a fourth volume of correspondence planned) are perhaps an exception. In any case, her writings have never before received so important and so elaborate a commentary, which deepens our understanding of this remarkable woman.

It is easy to make fun of Bettina: she has been called the ideal “groupie.” Her works elevate fan mail to high art. The granddaughter of Sophie von La Roche, who in 1771 wrote the first interesting German novel with a middleclass setting, The History of Fräulein von Sternheim, Bettina von Arnim was also the sister of Clemens Brentano, whose poetry is perhaps the most musically impressive of the German canon. She married the Prussian aristocrat, novelist, and poet Achim von Arnim, who with her brother Clemens compiled the great collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which provided texts for Brahms, Mahler, and so many other composers.

Bettina’s specialty was hero worship. She chose her heroes well: Beethoven, Goethe, Hölderlin, the Brothers Grimm—the latter dedicated their collection of fairy tales to her. Her admiration of Hölderlin, which she shared with her brother, was almost unique in her time. With many of her heroes she carried on an extensive correspondence, some of which she published with a considerable amount of free editing and unauthorized revision. The Correspondence of Goethe with a Young Girl became a best seller. Her volumes of letters have the passionate intensity of a work of Romantic fiction, particularly those with her brother (entitled Wreath of Spring) and with her sister-in-law Günderode. She printed her correspondence with the king of Prussia (This Book is for the King), an ineffectual attempt to persuade him to liberalize his social policies. She also published the exchange of letters with a young man who fell in love with her but developed later disappointingly into a conservative mediocrity (Bettina’s affairs of the heart were almost embarrassingly platonic).

She was an important figure in Prussian society: her daughters were presented at court, although she herself refused to attend. During the revolution of 1848, her salon was split in two, with Bettina’s left-wing protégés on one side of the room and her family and their reactionary friends on the other. Some of her children were ashamed of their mother’s politics. With a brother and husband violently and fashionably anti-Semitic, Bettina worked hard for Jewish causes. She even began a remarkable study of poverty in Prussia, a survey of poor families in town after town, with lists of how much money each one disposed of, how they were clothed, in what housing conditions they were lodged. The book was banned by the government even before it was written, but the lists exist and are printed in this new edition, along with the introductory matter that was actually finished. The simple details are very moving. It is an extraordinary piece of early sociological research.

The 125-page introduction to Bettina’s political writings brings a new perspective to her work. The Prussian bureaucracy decided to teach her a lesson and attempted to levy the Bürgerrecht (“bourgeois right” or commercial tax) on her as a business rather than as a private person. She refused to pay, but proudly offered the sum as a gift to the Prussian state, a compromise which was declined. In a letter that scandalized the magistrature, she wrote:

I grant you that I place the bourgeoisie higher than the aristocracy. There we are in agreement.—Similarly I place even higher the class of the proletariat, without whose inborn magnificent force of character, fortitude in misery, in renunciation and restriction of the necessities of life, little profit for the good of the whole would be accomplished.—The wealth of the poor consists in the inborn riches of Nature, the service of the citizenry in the application and cultivation of this natural wealth, which thanks to its active application is bestowed to the advantage of those classes whose arrogance, over-indulgence and spiritual ill-breeding devours everything, just because it has no power to produce.

The basis, therefore, for my placing the proletariat in the highest rank is that it is freed from the baseness of trying to win something from the world by usury, that it gives everything and consumes nothing in return of what it needs, as it develops new force for the profit of others.—Obviously the position of the lowest of the nation is the highest and inspires the greatest veneration because of its helplessness; indeed, working most successfully for poverty in spite of its poverty.

We can see from this that Bettina’s politics are essentially conservative, but of a traditional kind of romantic conservatism that frightens most of the conservatives who have achieved power.

This new edition of Bettina von Arnim, the first with a full commentary, gives greater stature to her work. It also illuminates the difficulties that a woman of great talent experienced in the nineteenth century. Her various collections of correspondence may appear parasitic, dependent on other minds to come into being, but paradoxically her ambition was even higher than that of the great female novelists of the century, whose work rivals and often surpasses the novels written by men. Her intention was to play a role in the politics, philosophy, poetry, and art of her time, and she won her position finally against society, against the government, and against her own family. Like the Marquis de Sade, Bettina von Arnim can join the company of saints because she was to a certain extent already there. Rilke and others read her, although with skepticism and a patronizing sympathy. This new edition allows us to see her with all her limitations but without condescension, because it offers a new view of the role she played in her society.

The prestige which these grand, luxurious editions confer on their authors has an advantage which conceals a danger. The uniform bindings confirm us in our belief that we are reading a classic, and they make the authors appear in some timeless space in which they all coexist together: Ben Franklin cozily conversing with Henry James, Sade arguing with Montaigne, Bettina von Arnim and Goethe meeting as coeval equals. The illusion that these bindings are designed to foster, and it is not an ignoble one, is that these authors all speak to us directly as our contemporaries. This facility of discourse, however, only becomes fully effective as we understand how alien these writers are to us, and we become able to translate them for ourselves. For this reason, an adequate historical commentary is a necessity, since it repositions the text in real time, and marks out the difference from our world. Even the variant readings of a critical edition are a help: they make us realize that the work itself has a history, and did not spring into the world a full-grown classic.

Like a museum, a publication of the classics not only preserves but partially invents a past, a national identity. Those who are dissatisfied with the culture in which they live and would like to alter it will naturally try to construct a new canon. The past, however, is not infinitely malleable; it frustrates many of our efforts to change it. Tradition is resistant. On the other hand, it is not monolithic; it is, in fact, continuously being reshaped. Nevertheless, tradition has to appear to cooperate with the reshaping. Ignorance and a contempt for the past are often a prerequisite—and even a wonderful inspiration—for the creation of new styles and new forms of art, but the restructuring of the canon that many of us hope for can only be accomplished with a sympathy even for those aspects of the past most antipathetic to modern ideals.

  1. 1

    Aristocratic debauchery was not then exceptional and was the occasion for numerous popular scandals, rather like the tabloid gossip about movie stars today. The publicity then as now had its political motivation. Sade’s youthful behavior does not seem to have overstepped the contemporary aristocratic norms; this, of course, is not reassuring. However, the belief, common to both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, that sexual excess is confined to the very rich and famous (or, alternatively, to the very poor) does not have much to recommend it. Sade was implicated in two scandals: in the first of these, he was accused of beating a prostitute; the second had more serious consequences, since four prostitutes claimed to have been poisoned by aphrodisiacs, and acts of homosexual and heterosexual sodomy were committed, crimes punishable by death. Jean Deprun, in his introduction to the first volume of Sade in the Pléiade edition, traces the development in the popular imagination during the last decades of the eighteenth century of Sade as a monster, an ogre, and a blaspheming Satanic figure. His mythical reputation seems to have preceded much of his literary work, or even inspired it, and it was perhaps encouraged by his family, who were tired of his escapades and preferred to see him confined in prison, as he was for a great part of his life.

  2. 2

    Readers in need of a serious commentary on Burton must turn for the moment to a French publication called L’Utopie ou la République Poétique de Robert Burton (Paris: Editions Obsidiane et L’Age d’Homme, 1992); this reproduces nine pages of Burton’s text, with a preface by Jean Starobinski, and a French translation and 120-page commentary by Louis Evrard.