Thesis of the Month: New Commitment: Authors Against the Unacceptable

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Chloé Chaudet tells the story of her thesis about literary commitment and how she had to face preconceptions about this phenomenon, which seems outdated to most contemporary literary scholars and readers – but not so much to the authors themselves, as she shows.

Thesis Title: “Contemporary Literary Commitment or the Denunciation of an Unacceptable. Elements for a Transcultural Poetics” (“L’engagement littéraire contemporain ou la dénonciation d’un inacceptable. Éléments pour une poétique transculturelle”)

 

The notion of literary commitment seems to strike many today as puzzling, both in France and in Germany, and almost certainly in the United Kingdom too, which, of the three, has the weakest tradition of public intellectuals. I first noticed this fact during my university studies in Germany, where the influence of “postmodernity” has led many scholars to consider literary works that are socially and politically committed to be old-fashioned. When I came back to France, I saw that these works, although considered outdated, were however repeatedly referenced in debates about the public role of intellectuals. The importance of commitment in specifically “postcolonial” theory and works invited me to wonder whether committed literature might have enjoyed a revival at the end of the twentieth century, after the end of so-called “grand narratives” (by Jean-François Lyotard and other thinkers after him).

A few (French) friends asked me how I could be interested in such an outdated concept as commitment. My answer has always been the same: At the beginning of the twenty-first century, historical events such as the “Arab spring” have shown that the idea of revolutionary changes is not entirely forsaken! That’s why it seems important to me to examine how various historical transformations have led to new forms of commitment, in the West as well as in other parts of the world.

I chose to compare the various types of commitment illustrated by nine emblematical writers. Some of these may have been regarded as controversial (Peter Handke, Salman Rushdie), some have been rewarded by the Nobel Prize (Jean-Marie Le Clézio, Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk), others have manifested humanist concerns that deserve to be widely considered (Waris Dirie, Taslima Nasreen, Ben Okri, Luis Sepúlveda). In fact, all of these authors embody new and globalized configurations of the Western committed intellectual’s and writer’s model. As both they and their work span much of the globe, so I have had to as well in my reading and thinking. This has been an exciting journey!

I saw very quickly that their works were quite different and belonged to various literary, social and political contexts, but that they were all inspired by the denunciation of what is unacceptable in the eye of the author: this has led me to formulate a new type of literary commitment. Inspired by Ben Okri, this “denunciation of an unacceptable”, as a deliberately broad expression, has enabled me to rethink literary commitment:

– in a transhistorical way, that goes beyond Sartre’s littérature engagée;

– in a transcultural perspective, because the “unacceptable” is a variable term, which is not limited to the Western concept of an attack on human dignity.

I have chosen the word “denunciation” because of the rhetorical nuances it has helped me to translate, from “notification” – exactly what the Latin word denuntio means – to “indictment”. Thus, I have identified various (poetical and rhetorical) strategies that reveal more nuanced approaches to politics than the straightforward roman à thèse. My final typology starts from evident and polemical forms of denunciation and moves to tacit and undermined ones, in which, for example, the author isn’t clearly aggressive: “accusation”, “overcoming”, “gap” and “testimony”. I have to thank my nine authors, who have often been very talkative with the press (and in their essays) about their own literary works: they also have helped me a lot to give these categories a name! For example, I was hesitating about the final title to give to the fourth part of my thesis, which especially deals with Le Clézio’s novels. My first idea had been “Strategies of testimony”, but I wasn’t so sure any more. A few weeks later, Le Clézio gave an interview to the newspaper Liberation (interwiew with Claire Devarrieux, 27.03.2014), where he said: “If literature has a responsibility, it is to be a testimony”: my hesitation suddenly vanished!

With my new approach to studying literary commitment, I have tried to bring to light the beauty and the moral strength of the works that I have studied. Through their novels, all “my” authors prove the ability of literature to question globalization and to put forward new ways of thinking and feeling in a global context.

I don’t know if I feel now closer to them, because my admiration for them has grown during my work; what is certain is that this thesis has really made me aware of their courage.

 

Chloé Chaudet completed her PhD in 2014 in co-supervision at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and Saarland University. Her thesis is to be published in 2016 with the title Écritures de l’engagement par temps de mondialisation by Classiques Garnier (collection “Poétiques comparatistes”, série “Littérature et mondialisation”).

 

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