To Value, to Judge, to Rank: Towards the Rhetoric of Early Nineteenth-Century Taste

Mikhail Gronas, Trinity College

The concept of aesthetic value is a relatively recent borrowing from political economy. Although today the economic metaphor of value seems to be central to the realm of aesthetics, the language we use when speaking about a work of art shows that there is more than one metaphor at work: We judge and rank works and artists. Historically, it is the metaphor of judicial or sport contest that constituted the main rhetorical support for the conceptualization and verbalization of opinions on art. The well known history of the word "classics" (which initially referred to the highest social class--those Roman citizens who paid the highest taxes) reveals the role of another important metaphor, that of social classification and hierarchy. The main thesis of my talk is that in the history of taste the question, what texts and authors are excluded/included, preferred/marked down, exalted/berated, is as important as the question, how, by what rhetorical means it is done. Rhetorical mechanism not only facilitates the expression of taste but also shapes it by limiting the scope of possible arguments, determining the frame of reasoning, directing the choice of examples etc. Therefore, the history of taste as such has to be complemented by a history of taste rhetoric. My talk--a preliminary and tentative example of the latter--will have to do with the critical discourse of the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Manifestations of the value metaphor are beyond the scope of the present analysis, since in my talk I will concentrate on the rhetorical models involved in the canonical judgments, i.e., judgments dealing primarily with the relations and hierarchies between texts and authors--not with the intrinsic quality of works.

Among the models to be discussed are:

1) "X is our/Russian Y," where X is a Russian writer and Y is a European canonical author, as in "Russian Byron" referring to Pushkin, or "Russian La Fontaine" referring to Dmitriev;

2) "stable pairs," a variant of sport metaphor where two writers are repeatedly described and discussed as rivals, as in "Sumarokov vs. Tred'jakovskij," "Derzhavin vs. Lomonosov," "Krylov vs. Dmitriev";

3) "poetic championship," a variant of sport metaphor which presupposes awarding a poet the first place among the poets, as in "zhertvoj inozemnogo razvratnika sdelalsja pervyj poet Rossii" (Zhukovskij, 1837);

4) "Table of Ranks" [Tabel' o rangax], a projection of the bureaucratic hierarchy onto the realm of literature that has led to a peculiar etymological reenactment of the usage development of the Latin classicus: I have in mind the instance when the word "pervoklassnyj," used literally to mean "pertaining to the highest rank of the Table of Ranks," was applied in the context of discussion of artistic superiority of a poet.