Blog: Jessica Goodman reflects on ‘The Point of View of Posterity’

‘Let posterity be your only point of view.’

La Mettrie, French materialist philosopher, 1750

dresden fama 2aIn eighteenth-century France, posterity was a topic that occupied the thoughts of a great number of cultural producers, in particular authors. On the one hand, writers were increasingly concerned with how they would be remembered: a set of letters between Diderot and the sculptor Falconet on the relative durability of material art and the written word are a particularly famous example of this preoccupation. On the other hand, the reality of literary posterity was taking on new significance, with writers appearing in sculptural and pictorial galleries of great men, being buried in the Panthéon, and – as in Rousseau’s case – becoming the subject of posthumous cults.

In March 2015, I co-organised a conference that set out to explore these questions, their relationship to developing concepts of literary celebrity, and how they were reflected in contemporary writings. Many of the themes raised during ‘Posterity in France, 1650-1800’ link to issues explored by the Authors and the World hub across the year, and a full report is available hereHowever, one question in particular stuck with me, reappearing at intervals throughout the day, and niggling every time I thought back over our discussions. The problem, in short, was whether we could talk about literary posterity in any meaningful or objective way when we are in fact part of that posterity.

Many of the writers examined by our speakers attempted to define how posterity – generally viewed as a posthumous cultural presence or influence – could be obtained. Voltaire and Mercier, among others, saw posterity as a judge, which applied natural or universal criteria to retain only those individuals whose greatness or utility were relevant to future audiences. Greatness or utility in life may or may not be indicators of such future relevance, for however hard an individual works to be remembered, posterity can only ever be in the hands of those who come afterwards. Voltaire may think his own assessments regarding of his contemporaries align with this universal judgement, but he can never be sure.

One of the complexities of any text that anticipates posterity, then, is the insurmountable gap between that imagined future state, and the reality of a posthumous reputation, which can neither be guaranteed nor experienced by its subject. Testament to this complexity is the range of tenses or moods employed to discuss posterity: from present tenses that imply glory is already won, to past tenses that look back at this glory from some distant future perspective, to tentative conditionals, subjunctives and parentheses, which suggest that all sorts of complicated temporal games must be played in order for an author to make this uncontrollable future present on the page.

This lack of control over an image is an issue that exists even for celebrity acquired during an individual’s lifetime: by definition, it is the participation of an audience (readers, spectators, fans) that creates this celebrity. But the problem becomes considerably more complex when a temporal disconnect is introduced. Whilst a famous living author can respond to his readers, the moment he is dead, all judgments about him must be based on the (now immutable) traces he leaves, and though these judgements might change over time, any such evolution is inevitably down to external factors.

And key among these factors is the work of literary scholars. For if a posthumous reputation implies being talked or written about, then we are heavily implicated in this process by the decisions we take about our research and our teaching. Yet at the same time we have a skewed perspective. On the one hand there is the canon (itself, as we know, a problematic concept): a generally agreed-upon grouping of texts or authors that have stood the test of time, achieving that lasting relevance posited by Mercier; read and reread and therefore defined as classics. And on the other are the ‘marginal’ or ‘minor’ or ‘forgotten’ writers who so many of us spend our time trying to rehabilitate; who have missed out on traditional forms of posterity, and who, indeed, we actively seek out in order to prove the novelty of our research.

A certain amount of academic work therefore consists in attempting to create posterity in areas where it did not perhaps previously exist, based on criteria that are very different to those that lead a book or an author to become part of an accepted canon. Moreover, moving an author from one camp to the other often relies far more on contingent factors than it does on any ‘objective’ notion of greatness or utility, or indeed on the whims of individual scholars. The widespread availability of affordable critical editions of a particular text will determine whether it can be included on undergraduate courses, whilst in the time-pressed academy, a well-catalogued archive will attract far more researchers than an enticing but chaotic mass of disorganised and partial documents.

The authors who had made it onto our conference programme had, by definition, already achieved some form of posterity, however artificial or niche, precisely because we were talking about them. In fact, we could only access individuals who had some posthumous status: either those who wanted posterity and managed to procure it, or those who were the subject of external processes that had brought them to the same level of recognition. What we could not do, we realised, was make any assumptions about causality, or about the success of any one strategy for being remembered. And more frustratingly still, any attempt to access examples of failed posterity would to an extent end up negating that failure.

We are the posterity whose perspective La Mettrie advised aspiring authors to adopt, and our point of view can therefore never be neutral. Admittedly, the academic community might represent a very specific, specialist type of posterity, but we are nonetheless far too implicated to be able to take an objective view. Quite what this problem means for our future discussions of the concept, I have yet to fully comprehend. At the very least, we have to be highly self-aware in our analyses. But most of all, I think, we must not forget that our knowledge of an individual does not by any means guarantee that they were successful in their pre-emptive adoption of our future viewpoint. Rather, a series of processes have brought that author, that work, or that citation to the modern day – and any apparent link between their desire for that recognition and its reality is merely a matter of perspective.

Authors_Goodman_thumbJessica Goodman is a Junior Research Fellow in French at Clare College, Cambridge, where she also teaches early modern French literature. She was awarded her doctorate by the University of Oxford in 2013 for a thesis on Carlo Goldoni’s authorial self-fashioning in France. She is now turning the thesis into a book, and has also published a number of articles on Goldoni and the Comédie-Italienne. Her new project, entitled ‘Literary Monuments’, studies the genre of ‘dialogues of the dead’ in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France, with a particular interest in the posthumous image of the author.



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