Friday, June 4, 2010

What Is Literature?

As you probably know by now, another of those squalid little cultural spats for which France is famous has erupted this week. America has culture wars, France has cultural food fights. This time the object is de Gaulle's memoirs, which 1,500 members of SNES, the teachers' union, feel gained its place on this year's Bac L syllabus only because the bureaucrats sought to curry favor with Sarkozy, de Gaulle the Small, who will attempt to step into the general's shoes later this month when he travels to London to re-enact l'Appel du 18 juin. For the teachers, de Gaulle doesn't belong with the likes of Homer, Samuel Beckett, and Pascal Quignard. Or, even if he does, he shouldn't have been put there under Sarkozy. Or something.

Meanwhile, parents are squawking (in a France2 reportage) that the way in which literature is taught these days--fraught with forbidding technical terms such as la structure actantielle and anaphore--turns their kids off of reading real literature--you know, the likes of Homer, Beckett, Quignard ... and de Gaulle. Of course, everyone in France these days needs to learn about anaphora, the favorite rhetorical device of Henri Guaino and therefore of Nicolas Sarkozy. In any case, I think a compromise can be worked out: one volume of de Gaulle in exchange for La Princesse de Clèves, anaphora, and two tropes to be named later.


Kirk said...

Anectdotal, but... My son was a big reader, and got great grades in French, through "collège". When he got to lycée, his grades in French plummetted, and he hated the class. He hated the stuff they had to do, talking about texts with such absurd terminology. When I looked at his French textbooks, I realized that this was what is probably graduate-level stylistic analyses in most other countries, and I felt bad for him, but there's nothing I could do. They've totally killed literature, with some post-modern idea that the text doesn't count and kids who couldn't give a rat's ass about the techniques used to create texts have to learn the stupidest, most uninteresting stuff.

Nevertheless, he got very good grades on the French bac; he chose the "creative" parts, where you had to write texts, rather than explain.

MYOS said...

Art, I remember your writing about this a while back.
I seem to recall that De Gaulle and Quignard had been subsituted for Les liaisons dangereuses and Pascal (as in Les Pensées), and you'd found it funny...?
(Too lazy to check though)

While I respect De Gaulle's memoirs (well, I've only read 'longtemps j'ai eu une certaine idée de la France", or such - right at the beginning, I think), I don't think the text belongs to a comp-lit course. However it'd be disapointing if excerpts from that text weren't included in the history curriculum.

Passerby said...

@Kirk: At the BAC written exam, you can get to chose between creativity vs analysis.

However at the oral exam there is no escape, you have to do a commentary. If you hate text analysis, the only solution is to learn by heart the commentaries on all the texts that you studied with your teacher during the year.

Personally, during the BAC I felt the richest texts (from a style point of view) were the easiest to comment.

With one page of Racine, you could easily get going for hours. It's full of rhetoric, mythological references and there is a clear storyline.
With modern literature, like Annie Ernaux, it's much harder to find the "meat" to fill your 20mn.