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Act Six: Aristocracy and History in Interwar French Literature and Film

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This dissertation seeks to make sense of the recurring anachronism of aristocracy within early twentieth-century French culture, especially in literature and film. Most studies present the aristocrat as simply one among many examples of the nostalgia, reaction and fascination with the archaic that constituted an important intellectual and artistic tendency at the time. In fact, in the period entre-deux-guerres, the aristocrat was a privileged trope for investigating the overdetermined historical condition of modernity. In short, these figures of aristocracy do more than express modernist preoccupations with heritage and tradition; they are also especially productive tropes for negotiating the relationship between art, history, and politics. Close readings of works by Jean Renoir, Marcel Proust and Georges Bataille reveal that prominent French artists used aristocracy not only to address the place of tradition in aesthetic modernity, but also to locate themselves and their art in social and political life. The aristocrats in these interwar texts are tools for critiquing the world they find themselves in, for inventing aesthetic forms for representing History, and for imagining the role writing and film may play in history’s unfolding. Chapters one to three explore how aristocratic figures offer Renoir, Proust and Bataille resources for critiquing the forces of both reaction and ostensible progress in interwar France. They also operate as metonyms for explorations of the historicity of artistic forms like genre, narrative, image, and character, exposing the power structures legitimized by these forms. The fourth, concluding chapter turns its attention to how each artist employs the figure of the tragic aristocrat to represent History itself, arguing that each artist reinvents both the ancient genre and its noble protagonist in order to offer a vision of History as not-quite-tragedy.

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  • 01/29/2019
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