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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.

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