A Degrading Division: Hands & Minds in Simone Weil

Edward J. Hughes read

— essay in Edward J., Hughes, Egalitarian Strangeness: On Class Disturbance and Levelling in Modern and Contemporary French Narrative (Liverpool University Press, 2021), pp. 131-156

Book Abstract: The formulation ‘egalitarian strangeness’ is a direct borrowing from Courts voyages au pays du peuple [Short Voyages to the Land of the People] (1990), a collection of essays by the contemporary French thinker Jacques Rancière. Perhaps best known for his theory of radical equality as set out in Le Maître ignorant [The Ignorant Schoolmaster] (1987), Rancière reflects on ways in which a hierarchical social order based on inequality can come to be unsettled. In the democracy of literature, for example, he argues that words and sentences serve to capture any life and to make it available to any reader. The present book explores embedded forms of social and cultural ‘apportionment’ in a range of modern and contemporary French texts (including prose fiction, socially engaged commentary, and autobiography), while also identifying scenes of class disturbance and egalitarian encounter. Part One considers the ‘refrain of class’ audible in works by Claude Simon, Charles Péguy, Marie Ndiaye, Thierry Beinstingel, and Gabriel Gauny and examines how these authors’ practices of language connect with that refrain. In Part Two, Hughes analyses forms of domination and dressage with reference to Simone Weil’s mid-1930s factory journal, Paul Nizan’s novel of class alienation Antoine Bloyé from the same decade, and Pierre Michon’s Vies minuscules [Small Lives] (1984) with its focus on obscure rural lives. The reflection on how these narratives draw into contiguity antagonistic identities is extended in Part Three, where individual chapters on Proust and the contemporary authors François Bon and Didier Eribon demonstrate ways in which enduring forms of cultural distribution are both consolidated and contested.”