Style Notes: Louis Chevalier

I remember first reading – and not understanding – Louis Chevalier’s Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses as an undergraduate.

The book is a classic, and Chevalier’s influence on later historians of crime and criminality is obvious. Foucault, for instance, is full of echoes of Chevalier’s ideas.

But it’s also a very hard book to categorise. Not really a straightforward social history, Chevalier had idiosyncratic ideas about literature and social science.

As an undergraduate, I remember this sense of being overwhelmed reading this. Overwhelmed by erudition, by facts, numbers, literary references, an intimate knowledge of a whole range of phenomena. There are a lot of balls in the air.

Coming back to Chevalier many years later, I’m still struck by that, and also this sense of a particular style that I associate more with later French historians (again Foucault).

I’d call this the argument by deferred meaning. Chevalier often writes of ‘not only’ and ‘no longer’. His fondness for negation means that he more often tells his reader what a source does not mean than he tells them what it does. Consider this paragraph from his discussion of Victor Hugo:

The difference [in Hugo’s 1832 preface to Le Dernier jour d’un condamné] does not lie in the plea for the abolition of the death penalty, so heavily stressed by Victor Hugo himself and by his commentators, critics of literary or social history. Indeed, there is hardly a trace of any such plea in the story itself. “Somber elegy, vain plea,” Balzac wrote later. Somber elegy there is, but the vain plea only appears in the 1832 Preface. This is not the main difference between the story and the Preface. It does not lie in the author’s ambition to stand in the forefront of those who protested against the death penalty in the early years of the July Monarchy.

Only now, after six sentences of the paragraph, does Chevalier get to his affirmative statement:

 But it does lie in an evolution in the concept of crime which seems quite obvious to us, but which Hugo and his contemporaries do not seem to have perceived so plainly. (p.83)

The argument by deferred meaning can be deeply irritating.

It requires concentration from the reader, and it makes it hard to pull useful quotations to summarise what Chevalier is arguing. Even when the reader does find a pithy quotation, it will most likely have to be edited and purged of its oppositional logic to become a simple statement of interpretation: ‘the main difference between the story and the Preface… lie[s] in an evolution of the concept of crime which seems obvious to us…’ etc.

Yet there is also something deeply compelling about the argument by deferred meaning. It carries the reader tumbling along, dangling negation in front of their eyes, deferring the gratification of declarative certainty.

It gives Chevalier’s prose (even translated into English) an irresistible rhythm.




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