1.23.2017 Doc of the Day

Chaucer ellesmere
Chaucer ellesmere

Numero Uno“The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects.  Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.  It is a vis insita, a force inscribed in objective or subjective structures, but it is also a lex insita, the principle underlying the immanent regularities of the social world.  It is what makes the games of society – not least, the economic game – something other than simple games of chance offering at every moment the possibility of a miracle.  Roulette, which holds out the opportunity of winning a lot of money in a short space of time, and therefore of changing one’s social status quasi-instantaneously, and in which the winning of the previous spin of the wheel can be staked and lost at every new spin, gives a fairly accurate image of this imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties, in which every moment is perfectly independent of the previous one, every soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, and every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything.  Capital, which, in its objectified or embodied forms, takes time to accumulate and which, as a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form, contains a tendency to persist in its being, is a force inscribed in the objectivity of things so that everything is not equally possible or impossible.  And the structure of the distribution of the different types and subtypes of capital at a given moment in time represents the immanent structure of the social world, i.e., the set of constraints, inscribed in the very reality of that world, which govern its functioning in a durable way, determining the chances of success for practices.

It is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory. Economic theory has allowed to be foisted upon it a definition of the economy of practices which is the historical invention of capitalism; and by reducing the universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange, which is objectively and subjectively oriented toward the maximization of profit, i.e., (economically) self-interested, it has implicitly defined the other forms of exchange as noneconomic, and therefore disinterested. In particular, it defines as disinterested those forms of exchange which ensure the transubstantiation whereby the most material types of capital – those which are economic in the restricted sense – can present themselves in the immaterial form of cultural capital or social capital and vice versa. Interest, in the restricted sense it is given in economic theory, cannot be produced without producing its negative counterpart, disinterestedness. The class of practices whose explicit purpose is to maximize monetary profit cannot be defined as such without producing the purposeless finality of cultural or artistic practices and their products; the world of bourgeois man, with his double-entry accounting, cannot be invented without producing the pure, perfect universe of the artist and the intellectual and the gratuitous activities of art-for-art’s sake and pure theory. In other words, the constitution of a science of mercantile relationships which, inasmuch as it takes for granted the very foundations of the order it claims to analyze – private property, profit, wage labor, etc. – is not even a science of the field of economic production, has prevented the constitution of a general science of the economy of practices, which would treat mercantile exchange as a particular case of exchange in all its forms.

It is remarkable that the practices and assets thus salvaged from the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation’ (and from science) are the virtual monopoly of the dominant class – as if economism had been able to reduce everything to economics only because the reduction on which that discipline is based protects from sacrilegious reduction everything which needs to be protected. If economics deals only with practices that have narrowly economic interest as their principle and only with goods that are directly and immediately convertible into money (which makes them quantifiable), then the universe of bourgeois production and exchange becomes an exception and can see itself and present itself as a realm of disinterestedness. As everyone knows, priceless things have their price, and the extreme difficulty of converting certain practices and certain objects into money is only due to the fact that this conversion is refused in the very intention that produces them, which is nothing other than the denial (Verneinung) of the economy. A general science of the economy of practices, capable of reappropriating the totality of the practices which, although objectively economic, are not and cannot be socially recognized as economic, and which can be performed only at the cost of a whole labor of dissimulation or, more precisely, euphemization, must endeavor to grasp capital and profit in all their forms and to establish the laws whereby the different types of capital (or power, which amounts to the same thing) change into one another.[2]

Depending on the field in which it functions, and at the cost of the more or less expensive transformations which are the precondition for its efficacy in the field in question, capital can present itself in three fundamental guises: as economic capital, which is immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the forms of property rights; as cultural capital, which is convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of educational qualifications; and as social capital, made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of a title of nobility.[3]


Cultural capital can exist in three forms: in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), which are the trace or realization of theories or critiques of these theories, problematics, etc.; and in the institutionalized state, a form of objectification which must be set apart because, as will be seen in the case of educational qualifications, it confers entirely original properties on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee.

The reader should not be misled by the somewhat peremptory air which the effort at axiomization may give to my argument.[4] The notion of cultural capital initially presented itself to me, in the course of research, as a theoretical hypothesis which made it possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes by relating academic success, i.e., the specific profits which children from the different classes and class fractions can obtain in the academic market, to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fractions. This starting point implies a break with the presuppositions inherent both in the commonsense view, which sees academic success or failure as an effect of natural aptitudes, and in human capital theories. Economists might seem to deserve credit for explicitly raising the question of the relationship between the rates of profit on educational investment and on economic investment (and its evolution). But their measurement of the yield from scholastic investment takes account only of monetary investments and profits, or those directly convertible into money, such as the costs of schooling and the cash equivalent of time devoted to study; they are unable to explain the different proportions of their resources which different agents or different social classes allocate to economic investment and cultural investment because they fail to take systematic account of the structure of the differential chances of profit which the various markets offer these agents or classes as a function of the volume and the composition of their assets (see esp. Becker 1964b). Furthermore, because they neglect to relate scholastic investment strategies to the whole set of educational strategies and to the system of reproduction strategies, they inevitably, by a necessary paradox, let slip the best hidden and socially most determinant educational investment, namely, the domestic transmission of cultural capital. Their studies of the relationship between academic ability and academic investment show that they are unaware that ability or talent is itself the product of an investment of time and cultural capital (Becker 1964a, p. 63-66). Not surprisingly, when endeavoring to evaluate the profits of scholastic investment, they can only consider the profitability of educational expenditure for society as a whole, the ‘social rate of return,’ or the ‘social gain of education as measured by its effects on national productivity’ (Becker 1964b, pp. 121, 155). This typically functionalist definition of the functions of education ignores the contribution which the educational system makes to the reproduction of the social structure by sanctioning the hereditary transmission of cultural capital. From the very beginning, a definition of human capital, despite its humanistic connotations, does not move beyond economism and ignores, inter alia, the fact that the scholastic yield from educational action depends on the cultural capital previously invested by the family. Moreover, the economic and social yield of the educational qualification depends on the social capital, again inherited, which can be used to back it up.

The Embodied State

Most of the properties of cultural capital can be deduced from the fact that, in its fundamental state, it is linked to the body and presupposes embodiment. The accumulation of cultural capital in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of what is called culture, cultivation, Bildung, presupposes a process of embodiment, incorporation, which, insofar as it implies a labor of inculcation and assimilation, costs time, time which must be invested personally by the investor. Like the acquisition of a muscular physique or a suntan, it cannot be done at second hand (so that all effects of delegation are ruled out).

The work of acquisition is work on oneself (self-improvement), an effort that presupposes a personal cost (on paie de sa personne, as we say in French), an investment, above all of time, but also of that socially constituted form of libido, libido sciendi, with all the privation, renunciation, and sacrifice that it may entail. It follows that the least inexact of all the measurements of cultural capital are those which take as their standard the length of acquisition – so long, of course, as this is not reduced to length of schooling and allowance is made for early domestic education by giving it a positive value (a gain in time, a head start) or a negative value (wasted time, and doubly so because more time must be spent correcting its effects), according to its distance from the demands of the scholastic market.[5]

This embodied capital, external wealth converted into an integral part of the person, into a habitus, cannot be transmitted instantaneously (unlike money, property rights, or even titles of nobility) by gift or bequest, purchase or exchange. It follows that the use or exploitation of cultural capital presents particular problems for the holders of economic or political capital, whether they be private patrons or, at the other extreme, entrepreneurs employing executives endowed with a specific cultural competence (not to mention the new state patrons). How can this capital, so closely linked to the person, be bought without buying the person and so losing the very effect of legitimation which presupposes the dissimulation of dependence? How can this capital be concentrated-as some undertakings demand-without concentrating the possessors of the capital, which can have all sorts of unwanted consequences?

Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously. It always remains marked by its earliest conditions of acquisition which, through the more or less visible marks they leave (such as the pronunciations characteristic of a class or region), help to determine its distinctive value. It cannot be accumulated beyond the appropriating capacities of an individual agent; it declines and dies with its bearer (with his biological capacity, his memory, etc.). Because it is thus linked in numerous ways to the person in his biological singularity and is subject to a hereditary transmission which is always heavily disguised, or even invisible, it defies the old, deep-rooted distinction the Greek jurists made between inherited properties (ta patroa) and acquired properties (epikteta), i.e., those which an individual adds to his heritage. It thus manages to combine the prestige of innate property with the merits of acquisition. Because the social conditions of its transmission and acquisition are more disguised than those of economic capital, it is predisposed to function as symbolic capital, i.e., to be unrecognized as capital and recognized as legitimate competence, as authority exerting an effect of (mis)recognition, e.g., in the matrimonial market and in all the markets in which economic capital is not fully recognized, whether in matters of culture, with the great art collections or great cultural foundations, or in social welfare, with the economy of generosity and the gift. Furthermore, the specifically symbolic logic of distinction additionally secures material and symbolic profits for the possessors of a large cultural capital: any given cultural competence (e.g., being able to read in a world of illiterates) derives a scarcity value from its position in the distribution of cultural capital and yields profits of distinction for its owner. In other words, the share in profits which scarce cultural capital secures in class-divided societies is based, in the last analysis, on the fact that all agents do not have the economic and cultural means for prolonging their children’s education beyond the minimum necessary for the reproduction of the labor-power least valorized at a given moment.[6]

Thus the capital, in the sense of the means of appropriating the product of accumulated labor in the objectified state which is held by a given agent, depends for its real efficacy on the form of the distribution of the means of appropriating the accumulated and objectively available resources; and the relationship of appropriation between an agent and the resources objectively available, and hence the profits they produce, is mediated by the relationship of (objective and/or subjective) competition between himself and the other possessors of capital competing for the same goods, in which scarcity – and through it social value – is generated. The structure of the field, i.e., the unequal distribution of capital, is the source of the specific effects of capital, i.e., the appropriation of profits and the power to impose the laws of functioning of the field most favorable to capital and its reproduction.

But the most powerful principle of the symbolic efficacy of cultural capital no doubt lies in the logic of its transmission. On the one hand, the process of appropriating objectified cultural capital and the time necessary for it to take place mainly depend on the cultural capital embodied in the whole family – through (among other things) the generalized Arrow effect and all forms of implicit transmission.[7] On the other hand, the initial accumulation of cultural capital, the precondition for the fast, easy accumulation of every kind of useful cultural capital, starts at the outset, without delay, without wasted time, only for the offspring of families endowed with strong cultural capital; in this case, the accumulation period covers the whole period of socialization. It follows that the transmission of cultural capital is no doubt the best hidden form of hereditary transmission of capital, and it therefore receives proportionately greater weight in the system of reproduction strategies, as the direct, visible forms of trans- mission tend to be more strongly censored and controlled.

It can immediately be seen that the link between economic and cultural capital is established through the mediation of the time needed for acquisition. Differences in the cultural capital possessed by the family imply differences first in the age at which the work of transmission and accumulation begins-the limiting case being full use of the time biologically available, with the maximum free time being harnessed to maximum cultural capital – and then in the capacity, thus defined, to satisfy the specifically cultural demands of a prolonged process of acquisition. Furthermore, and in correlation with this, the length of time for which a given individual can prolong his acquisition process depends on the length of time for which his family can provide him with the free time, i.e., time free from economic necessity, which is the precondition for the initial accumulation (time which can be evaluated as a handicap to be made up).

The Objectified State

Cultural capital, in the objectified state, has a number of properties which are defined only in the relationship with cultural capital in its embodied form. The cultural capital objectified in material objects and media, such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments, etc., is transmissible in its materiality. A collection of paintings, for example, can be transmitted as well as economic capital (if not better, because the capital transfer is more disguised). But what is transmissible is legal ownership and not (or not necessarily) what constitutes the precondition for specific appropriation, namely, the possession of the means of ‘consuming’ a painting or using a machine, which, being nothing other than embodied capital, are subject to the same laws of transmission.[8]

Thus cultural goods can be appropriated both materially – which presupposes economic capital – and symbolically – which presupposes cultural capital. It follows that the owner of the means of production must find a way of appropriating either the embodied capital which is the precondition of specific appropriation or the services of the holders of this capital. To possess the machines, he only needs economic capital; to appropriate them and use them in accordance with their specific purpose (defined by the cultural capital, of scientific or technical type, incorporated in them), he must have access to embodied cultural capital, either in person or by proxy. This is no doubt the basis of the ambiguous status of cadres (executives and engineers). If it is emphasized that they are not the possessors (in the strictly economic sense) of the means of production which they use, and that they derive profit from their own cultural capital only by selling the services and products which it makes possible, then they will be classified among the dominated groups; if it is emphasized that they draw their profits from the use of a particular form of capital, then they will be classified among the dominant groups. Everything suggests that as the cultural capital incorporated in the means of production increases (and with it the period of embodiment needed to acquire the means of appropriating it), so the collective strength of the holders of cultural capital would tend to increase – if the holders of the dominant type of capital (economic capital) were not able to set the holders of cultural capital in competition with one another. (They are, moreover, inclined to competition by the very conditions in which they are selected and trained, in particular by the logic of scholastic and recruitment competitions.)

Cultural capital in its objectified state presents itself with all the appearances of an autonomous, coherent universe which, although the product of historical action, has its own laws, transcending individual wills, and which, as the example of language well illustrates, therefore remains irreducible to that which each agent, or even the aggregate of the agents, can appropriate (i.e., to the cultural capital embodied in each agent or even in the aggregate of the agents). However, it should not be forgotten that it exists as symbolically and materially active, effective capital only insofar as it is appropriated by agents and implemented and invested as a weapon and a stake in the struggles which go on in the fields of cultural production (the artistic field, the scientific field, etc.) and, beyond them, in the field of the social classes – struggles in which the agents wield strengths and obtain profits proportionate to their mastery of this objectified capital, and therefore to the extent of their embodied capital.[9]

The Institutionalized State

The objectification of cultural capital in the form of academic qualifications is one way of neutralizing some of the properties it derives from the fact that, being embodied, it has the same biological limits as its bearer. This objectification is what makes the difference between the capital of the autodidact, which may be called into question at any time, or even the cultural capital of the courtier, which can yield only ill-defined profits, of fluctuating value, in the market of high-society exchanges, and the cultural capital academically sanctioned by legally guaranteed qualifications, formally independent of the person of their bearer. With the academic qualification, a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture, social alchemy produces a form of cultural capital which has a relative autonomy vis-à-vis its bearer and even vis-à-vis the cultural capital he effectively possesses at a given moment in time. It institutes cultural capital by collective magic, just as, according to Merleau-Ponty, the living institute their dead through the ritual of mourning. One has only to think of the concours (competitive recruitment examination) which, out of the continuum of infinitesimal differences between performances, produces sharp, absolute, lasting differences, such as that which separates the last successful candidate from the first unsuccessful one, and institutes an essential difference between the officially recognized, guaranteed competence and simple cultural capital, which is constantly required to prove itself. In this case, one sees clearly the performative magic of the power of instituting, the power to show forth and secure belief or, in a word, to impose recognition.

By conferring institutional recognition on the cultural capital possessed by any given agent, the academic qualification also makes it possible to compare qualification holders and even to exchange them (by substituting one for another in succession). Furthermore, it makes it possible to establish conversion rates between cultural capital and economic capital by guaranteeing the monetary value of a given academic capital.[10] This product of the conversion of economic capital into cultural capital establishes the value, in terms of cultural capital, of the holder of a given qualification relative to other qualification holders and, by the same token, the monetary value for which it can be exchanged on the labor market (academic investment has no meaning unless a minimum degree of reversibility of the conversion it implies is objectively guaranteed). Because the material and symbolic profits which the academic qualification guarantees also depend on its scarcity, the investments made (in time and effort) may turn out to be less profitable than was anticipated when they were made (there having been a de facto change in the conversion rate between academic capital and economic capital). The strategies for converting economic capital into cultural capital, which are among the short-term factors of the schooling explosion and the inflation of qualifications, are governed by changes in the structure of the chances of profit offered by the different types of capital.


Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group[11] – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word. These relationships may exist only in the practical state, in material and/or symbolic exchanges which help to maintain them. They may also be socially instituted and guaranteed by the application of a common name (the name of a family, a class, or a tribe or of a school, a party, etc.) and by a whole set of instituting acts designed simultaneously to form and inform those who undergo them; in this case, they are more or less really enacted and so maintained and reinforced, in exchanges. Being based on indissolubly material and symbolic exchanges, the establishment and maintenance of which presuppose reacknowledgment of proximity, they are also partially irreducible to objective relations of proximity in physical (geographical) space or even in economic and social space.[12]

The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent thus depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital (economic, cultural or symbolic) possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected.[13] This means that, although it is relatively irreducible to the economic and cultural capital possessed by a given agent, or even by the whole set of agents to whom he is connected, social capital is never completely independent of it because the exchanges instituting mutual acknowledgment presuppose the reacknowledgment of a minimum of objective homogeneity, and because it exerts a multiplier effect on the capital he possesses in his own right.

The profits which accrue from membership in a group are the basis of the solidarity which makes them possible.[14] This does not mean that they are consciously pursued as such, even in the case of groups like select clubs, which are deliberately organized in order to concentrate social capital and so to derive full benefit from the multiplier effect implied in concentration and to secure the profits of membership – material profits, such as all the types of services accruing from useful relationships, and symbolic profits, such as those derived from association with a rare, prestigious group.

The existence of a network of connections is not a natural given, or even a social given, constituted once and for all by an initial act of institution, represented, in the case of the family group, by the genealogical definition of kinship relations, which is the characteristic of a social formation. It is the product of an endless effort at institution, of which institution rites – often wrongly described as rites of passage – mark the essential moments and which is necessary in order to produce and reproduce lasting, useful relationships that can secure material or symbolic profits (see Bourdieu 1982). In other words, the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term, i.e., at transforming contingent relations, such as those of neighborhood, the workplace, or even kinship, into relationships that are at once necessary and elective, implying durable obligations subjectively felt (feelings of gratitude, respect, friendship, etc.) or institutionally guaranteed (rights). This is done through the alchemy of consecration, the symbolic constitution produced by social institution (institution as a relative – brother, sister, cousin, etc. – or as a knight, an heir, an elder, etc.) and endlessly reproduced in and through the exchange (of gifts, words, women, etc.) which it encourages and which presupposes and produces mutual knowledge and recognition. Exchange transforms the things exchanged into signs of recognition and, through the mutual recognition and the recognition of group membership which it implies, reproduces the group. By the same token, it reaffirms the limits of the group, i.e., the limits beyond which the constitutive exchange – trade, commensality, or marriage – cannot take place. Each member of the group is thus instituted as a custodian of the limits of the group: because the definition of the criteria of entry is at stake in each new entry, he can modify the group by modifying the limits of legitimate exchange through some form of misalliance. It is quite logical that, in most societies, the preparation and conclusion of marriages should be the business of the whole group, and not of the agents directly concerned. Through the introduction of new members into a family, a clan, or a club, the whole definition of the group, i.e., its fines, its boundaries, and its identity, is put at stake, exposed to redefinition, alteration, adulteration. When, as in modern societies, families lose the monopoly of the establishment of exchanges which can lead to lasting relationships, whether socially sanctioned (like marriage) or not, they may continue to control these exchanges, while remaining within the logic of laissez-faire, through all the institutions which are designed to favor legitimate exchanges and exclude illegitimate ones by producing occasions (rallies, cruises, hunts, parties, receptions, etc.), places (smart neighborhoods, select schools, clubs, etc.), or practices (smart sports, parlor games, cultural ceremonies, etc.) which bring together, in a seemingly fortuitous way, individuals as homogeneous as possible in all the pertinent respects in terms of the existence and persistence of the group.

The reproduction of social capital presupposes an unceasing effort of sociability, a continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed. This work, which implies expenditure of time and energy and so, directly or indirectly, of economic capital, is not profitable or even conceivable unless one invests in it a specific competence (knowledge of genealogical relationships and of real connections and skill at using them, etc.) and an acquired disposition to acquire and maintain this competence, which are themselves integral parts of this capital.[15] This is one of the factors which explain why the profitability of this labor of accumulating and maintaining social capital rises in proportion to the size of the capital. Because the social capital accruing from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital (mainly social, but also cultural and even economic capital), the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections. They are sought after for their social capital and, because they are well known, are worthy of being known (‘I know him well’); they do not need to ‘make the acquaintance’ of all their ‘acquaintances’; they are known to more people than they know, and their work of sociability, when it is exerted, is highly productive.

Every group has its more or less institutionalized forms of delegation which enable it to concentrate the totality of the social capital, which is the basis of the existence of the group (a family or a nation, of course, but also an association or a party), in the hands of a single agent or a small group of agents and to mandate this plenipotentiary, charged with plena potestas agendi et loquendi,[16] to represent the group, to speak and act in its name and so, with the aid of this collectively owned capital, to exercise a power incommensurate with the agent’s personal contribution. Thus, at the most elementary degree of institutionalization, the head of the family, the pater familias, the eldest, most senior member, is tacitly recognized as the only person entitled to speak on behalf of the family group in all official circumstances. But whereas in this case, diffuse delegation requires the great to step forward and defend the collective honor when the honor of the weakest members is threatened. The institutionalized delegation, which ensures the concentration of social capital, also has the effect of limiting the consequences of individual lapses by explicitly delimiting responsibilities and authorizing the recognized spokesmen to shield the group as a whole from discredit by expelling or excommunicating the embarrassing individuals.

If the internal competition for the monopoly of legitimate representation of the group is not to threaten the conservation and accumulation of the capital which is the basis of the group, the members of the group must regulate the conditions of access to the right to declare oneself a member of the group and, above all, to set oneself up as a representative (delegate, plenipotentiary, spokesman, etc.) of the whole group, thereby committing the social capital of the whole group. The title of nobility is the form par excellence of the institutionalized social capital which guarantees a particular form of social relationship in a lasting way. One of the paradoxes of delegation is that the mandated agent can exert on (and, up to a point, against) the group the power which the group enables him to concentrate. (This is perhaps especially true in the limiting cases in which the mandated agent creates the group which creates him but which only exists through him.) The mechanisms of delegation and representation (in both the theatrical and the legal senses) which fall into place – that much more strongly, no doubt, when the group is large and its members weak – as one of the conditions for the concentration of social capital (among other reasons, because it enables numerous, varied, scattered agents to act as one man and to overcome the limitations of space and time) also contain the seeds of an embezzlement or misappropriation of the capital which they assemble.

This embezzlement is latent in the fact that a group as a whole can be represented, in the various meanings of the word, by a subgroup, clearly delimited and perfectly visible to all, known to all, and recognized by all, that of the nobiles, the ‘people who are known,’ the paradigm of whom is the nobility, and who may speak on behalf of the whole group, represent the whole group, and exercise authority in the name of the whole group. The noble is the group personified. He bears the name of the group to which he gives his name (the metonymy which links the noble to his group is clearly seen when Shakespeare calls Cleopatra ‘Egypt’ or the King of France ‘France,’ just as Racine calls Pyrrhus ‘Epirus’). It is by him, his name, the difference it proclaims, that the members of his group, the liegemen, and also the land and castles, are known and recognized. Similarly, phenomena such as the ‘personality cult’ or the identification of parties, trade unions, or movements with their leader are latent in the very logic of representation. Everything combines to cause the signifier to take the place of the signified, the spokesmen that of the group he is supposed to express, not least because his distinction, his ‘outstandingness,’ his visibility constitute the essential part, if not the essence, of this power, which, being entirely set within the logic of knowledge and acknowledgment, is fundamentally a symbolic power; but also because the representative, the sign, the emblem, may be, and create, the whole reality of groups which receive effective social existence only in and through representation.[17]


The different types of capital can be derived from economic capital, but only at the cost of a more or less great effort of transformation, which is needed to produce the type of power effective in the field in question. For example, there are some goods and services to which economic capital gives immediate access, without secondary costs; others can be obtained only by virtue of a social capital of relationships (or social obligations) which cannot act instantaneously, at the appropriate moment, unless they have been established and maintained for a long time, as if for their own sake, and therefore outside their period of use, i.e., at the cost of an investment in sociability which is necessarily long-term because the time lag is one of the factors of the transmutation of a pure and simple debt into that recognition of nonspecific indebtedness which is called gratitude.[18] In contrast to the cynical but also economical transparency of economic exchange, in which equivalents change hands in the same instant, the essential ambiguity of social exchange, which presupposes misrecognition, in other words, a form of faith and of bad faith (in the sense of self-deception), presupposes a much more subtle economy of time.

So it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects. The real logic of the functioning of capital, the conversions from one type to another, and the law of conservation which governs them cannot be understood unless two opposing but equally partial views are superseded: on the one hand, economism, which, on the grounds that every type of capital is reducible in the last analysis to economic capital, ignores what makes the specific efficacy of the other types of capital, and on the other hand, semiologism (nowadays represented by structuralism, symbolic interactionism, or ethnomethodology), which reduces social exchanges to phenomena of communication and ignores the brutal fact of universal reducibility to economics.[19]

In accordance with a principle which is the equivalent of the principle of the conservation of energy, profits in one area are necessarily paid for by costs in another (so that a concept like wastage has no meaning in a general science of the economy of practices). The universal equivalent, the measure of all equivalences, is nothing other than labor-time (in the widest sense); and the conservation of social energy through all its conversions is verified if, in each case, one takes into account both the labor-time accumulated in the form of capital and the labor-time needed to transform it from one type into another.

It has been seen, for example, that the transformation of economic capital into social capital presupposes a specific labor, i.e., an apparently gratuitous expenditure of time, attention, care, concern, which, as is seen in the endeavor to personalize a gift, has the effect of transfiguring the purely monetary import of the exchange and, by the same token, the very meaning of the exchange. From a narrowly economic standpoint, this effort is bound to be seen as pure wastage, but in the terms of the logic of social exchanges, it is a solid investment, the profits of which will appear, in the long run, in monetary or other form. Similarly, if the best measure of cultural capital is undoubtedly the amount of time devoted to acquiring it, this is because the transformation of economic capital into cultural capital presupposes an expenditure of time that is made possible by possession of economic capital. More precisely, it is because the cultural capital that is effectively transmitted within the family itself depends not only on the quantity of cultural capital, itself accumulated by spending time, that the domestic group possess, but also on the usable time (particularly in the form of the mother’s free time) available to it (by virtue of its economic capital, which enables it to purchase the time of others) to ensure the transmission of this capital and to delay entry into the labor market through prolonged schooling, a credit which pays off, if at all, only in the very long term.[20]

The convertibility of the different types of capital is the basis of the strategies aimed at ensuring the reproduction of capital (and the position occupied in social space) by means of the conversions least costly in terms of conversion work and of the losses inherent in the conversion itself (in a given state of the social power relations). The different types of capital can be distinguished according to their reproducibility or, more precisely, according to how easily they are transmitted, i.e., with more or less loss and with more or less concealment; the rate of loss and the degree of concealment tend to vary in inverse ratio. Everything which helps to disguise the economic aspect also tends to increase the risk of loss (particularly the intergenerational transfers). Thus the (apparent) incommensurability of the different types of capital introduces a high degree of uncertainty into all transactions between holders of different types. Similarly, the declared refusal of calculation and of guarantees which characterizes exchanges tending to produce a social capital in the form of a capital of obligations that are usable in the more or less long term (exchanges of gifts, services, visits, etc.) necessarily entails the risk of ingratitude, the refusal of that recognition of nonguaranteed debts which such exchanges aim to produce. Similarly, too, the high degree of concealment of the transmission of cultural capital has the disadvantage (in addition to its inherent risks of loss) that the academic qualification which is its institutionalized form is neither transmissible (like a title of nobility) nor negotiable (like stocks and shares). More precisely, cultural capital, whose diffuse, continuous transmission within the family escapes observation and control (so that the educational system seems to award its honors solely to natural qualities) and which is increasingly tending to attain full efficacy, at least on the labor market, only when validated by the educational system, i.e., converted into a capital of qualifications, is subject to a more disguised but more risky transmission than economic capital. As the educational qualification, invested with the specific force of the official, becomes the condition for legitimate access to a growing number of positions, particularly the dominant ones, the educational system tends increasingly to dispossess the domestic group of the monopoly of the transmission of power and privileges-and, among other things, of the choice of its legitimate heirs from among children of different sex and birth rank.[21] And economic capital itself poses quite different problems of transmission, depending on the particular fonn it takes. Thus, according to Grassby (1970), the liquidity of commercial capital, which gives immediate economic power and favors transmission, also makes it more vulnerable than landed property (or even real estate) and does not favor the establishment of long-lasting dynasties.

Because the question of the arbitrariness of appropriation arises most sharply in the process of transmission – particularly at the time of succession, a critical moment for all power – every reproduction strategy is at the same time a legitimation strategy aimed at consecrating both an exclusive appropriation and its reproduction. When the subversive critique which aims to weaken the dominant class through the principle of its perpetuation by bringing to light the arbitrariness of the entitlements transmitted and of their transmission (such as the critique which the Enlightenment philosophes directed, in the name of nature, against the arbitrariness of birth) is incorporated in institutionalized mechanisms (for example, laws of inheritance) aimed at controlling the official, direct transmission of power and privileges, the holders of capital have an ever greater interest in resorting to reproduction strategies capable of ensuring better-disguised transmission, but at the cost of greater loss of capital, by exploiting the convertibility of the types of capital. Thus the more the official transmission of capital is prevented or hindered, the more the effects of the clandestine circulation of capital in the form of cultural capital become determinant in the reproduction of the social structure. As an instrument of reproduction capable of disguising its own function, the scope of the educational system tends to increase, and together with this increase is the unification of the market in social qualifications which gives rights to occupy rare positions.”  Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital:” .

Numero DosPREFACEIt is in vain that an author solicits the indulgence of his public—the printed page is there to give the lie to his pretended modesty.  He would do better to trust to the justice, patience and impartiality of his readers, and it is to this last quality especially that the author of the present work makes his appeal.  He has often heard people in France speak of writings, opinions or sentiments as being ‘truly French;’ and so he may well be afraid that, by presenting facts truly as they are, and showing respect only for sentiments and opinions that are universally true, he may have provoked that jealous exclusiveness, which, in spite of its very doubtful character, we have seen of late set up as a virtue.  What, I wonder, would become of history, of ethics, of science itself or of literature, if they had to be truly German, truly Russian or Italian, truly Spanish or English, as soon as they had crossed the Rhine, the Alps or the Channel?  What are we to say to this kind of justice, to this ambulatory truth?  When we see such expressions as ‘devotion truly Spanish,’ ‘virtues truly English,’ seriously employed in the speeches of patriotic foreigners, it is high time to suspect this sentiment, which expresses itself in very similar terms also elsewhere.  At Constantinople or among savages, this blind and exclusive partiality for one’s own country is a rabid thirst for blood; among civilised peoples, it is a morbid, unhappy, restless vanity, that is ready to turn on you for a pinprick.

[1] [To the first edition, 1822.—Tr.]

[2] Extract from the Preface to M. Simond’s Voyage en Suisse, pp. 7, 8.

[Pg 2]


ThiS work has had no success: it has been found unintelligible—not without reason. Therefore in this new edition the author’s primary intention has been to render his ideas with clearness. He has related how they came to him, and he has made a preface and an introduction—all in order to be clear. Yet, in spite of so much care, out of a hundred who have read Corinne, there are not four readers who will understand this volume.

Although it deals with Love, this little book is no novel, and still less is it diverting like a novel. ‘Tis simply and solely an exact scientific description of a kind of madness which is very rarely to be found in France. The Empire of propriety, growing day by day wider, under the influence of our fear of ridicule much more than through the purity of our morals, has made of the word, which serves as title to this work, an expression, of which outspoken mention is avoided and which at times seems even to give offence. I have been forced to make use of it, but the scientific austerity of the language shelters me, I think, in this respect, from all reproach.

I know one or two Secretaries of Legation who will, at their return, be able to tender me their services. Till then what can I say to the people who deny the facts of my narration? Beg them not to listen to it.

[Pg 3]The form I have adopted may be reproached with egoism. A traveller is allowed to say: “I was at New York, thence I embarked for South America, I made my way back as far as Santa-Fé-de-Bogota. The gnats and mosquitoes made my life a misery during the journey, and for three days I couldn’t use my right eye.”

The traveller is not accused of loving to talk of himself: all his me’s and my’sare forgiven; for that is the clearest and most interesting manner of telling what he has seen.

It is in order, if possible, to be clear and picturesque, that the author of the present voyage into the little-known regions of the human heart says: “I went with Mme. Gherardi to the salt mines of Hallein…. Princess Crescenzi said to me at Rome…. One day at Berlin I saw handsome Capt. L….” All these little things really happened to the author, who passed fifteen years in Germany and Italy. But more observant than sensitive, he never encountered the least adventure himself, never experienced a single personal sentiment worthy of narration. Even supposing that he had the pride to believe the contrary, a still greater pride would have prevented him from publishing his heart and selling it on the market for six francs, like those people who in their lifetime publish their memoirs.

Correcting in 1822 the proofs of this kind of moral voyage in Italy and Germany, the author, who had described the objects the day that he had seen them, treated the manuscript, containing the detailed description of all the phases of this malady of the soul called Love, with that blind respect, shown by a scholar of the fourteenth century for a newly unearthed manuscript of Lactantius or Quintius Curtius. When the author met some obscure passage (and often, to say the truth, that happened), he always believed that the fault lay with the self who was reading, not with the self who had written. He confesses that his respect for the [Pg 4]early manuscript carried him so far as to print several passages, which he did not understand himself. Nothing more foolish for anyone who had thought of the good graces of the public; but the author, seeing Paris again after long travels, came to the conclusion that without grovelling before the Press a success was not to be had. Well, let him who brings himself to grovel keep that for the minister in power! A so-called success being out of the question, the author was pleased to publish his thoughts exactly as they had come to him. This was once upon a time the procedure of those philosophers of Greece, whose practical wisdom filled him with rapturous admiration.

It requires years to gain admittance to the inner circle of Italian society. Perhaps I shall have been the last traveller in that country. For since the Carbonari and the Austrian invasion, no foreigner will ever be received as a friend in the salons, where such reckless gaiety reigned. The traveller will see the monuments, streets and public places of a city, never the society—he will always be held in fear: the inhabitants will suspect that he is a spy, or fear that he is laughing at the battle of Antrodoco and at the degradations, which, in that land, are the one and only safeguard against the persecution of the eight or ten ministers or favourites who surround the Prince. Personally, I really loved the inhabitants and could see the truth. Sometimes for ten months together I never spoke a word of French, and but for political troubles and the Carbonari I would never have returned to France. Good-nature is what I prize above all things.

In spite of great care to be clear and lucid, I cannot perform miracles: I cannot give ears to the deaf nor eyes to the blind. So the people of great fortunes and gross pleasures, who have made a hundred thousand francs in the year preceding the moment they open this book, had better quickly shut it, especially if they are [Pg 5]bankers, manufacturers, respectable industrial folk—that’s to say, people with eminently positive ideas. This book would be less unintelligible to anyone who had made a large sum of money on the Stock Exchange or in a lottery. Such winnings may be found side by side with the habit of passing hours together in day-dreams, in the enjoyment of the emotion evoked by a picture of Prud’hon, a phrase of Mozart, still more, a certain peculiar look of a woman who is often in your thoughts. ‘Tis not in this way that these people “waste their time,” who pay ten thousand workmen at the end of each week: their minds work always towards the useful and the positive. The dreamer, of whom I speak, is the man they would hate, if they had time; ’tis him they like to make the butt of their harmless jokes. The industrial millionaire feels confusedly that such a man has more estime for a thought than for a bag of money.

I invite the studious young man to withdraw, if in the same year as the industrial gained a hundred thousand francs, he has acquired the knowledge of modern Greek, and is so proud of it that already he aspires to Arabic. I beg not to open this book every man, who has not been unhappy for imaginary reasons, reasons to which vanity is stranger, and which he would be very ashamed to see divulged in the salons.

I am sure to displease those women who capture the consideration of these very salons by an affectation that never lapses for an instant. Some of these for a moment I have surprised in good earnest, and so astonished, that, asking themselves the question, they could no longer tell whether such and such a sentiment, as they had just expressed, was natural or affected. How could such women judge of the portraiture of real feelings? In fact this work has been their bête noire: they say that the author must be a wretch.

To blush suddenly at the thought of certain youthful doings; to have committed follies through sensibility [Pg 6]and to suffer for them, not because you cut a silly figure in the eyes of the salon, but in the eyes of a certain person in the salon; to be in love at the age of twenty-six in good earnest with a woman who loves another, or even (but the case is so rare that I scarcely dare write it, for fear of sinking again into the unintelligible, as in the first edition)—or even to enter the salon where the woman is whom you fancy that you love, and to think only of reading in her eyes her opinion of you at the moment, without any idea of putting on a love-lorn expression yourself—these are the antecedents I shall ask of my reader. The description of many of these rare and subtle feelings has appeared obscure to people with positive ideas. How manage to be clear in their eyes? Tell them of a rise of fifty centimes or a change in the tariff of Columbia.[2]

The book before you explains simply and mathematically, so to speak, the curious feelings which succeed each other and form a whole called the Passion of Love.

Imagine a fairly complicated geometrical figure, drawn with white chalk on a large blackboard. Well, I am going to explain that geometrical figure, but on one condition—that it exists already on the blackboard, for I personally cannot draw it. It is this impossibility that makes it so difficult to write on Love a book which is not a novel. In order to follow with interest a philosophic examination of this feeling, something is wanted in the reader besides understanding: it is absolutely necessary that Love has been seen by him. But then where can a passion be seen?

This is a cause of obscurity that I shall never be able to eliminate.

[Pg 7]Love resembles what we call the Milky Way in heaven, a gleaming mass formed by thousands of little stars, each of which may be a nebula. Books have noted four or five hundred of the little feelings hanging together and so hard to recognise, which compose this passion. But even in these, the least refined, they have often blundered and taken the accessory for the principal. The best of these books, such as the Nouvelle Héloïse, the novels of Madame Cottin, the Letters of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse and Manon Lescaut, have been written in France, where the plant called Love is always in fear of ridicule, is overgrown by the demands of vanity, the national passion, and reaches its full height scarcely ever.

What is a knowledge of Love got from novels? After seeing it described—without ever feeling it—in hundreds of celebrated volumes, what is to be said of seeking in mine the explanation of this madness? I answer like an echo: “‘Tis madness.”

Poor disillusioned young lady, would you enjoy again that which busied you so some years ago, which you dared mention to no one, which almost cost you your honour? It is for you that I have refashioned this book and tried to make it clearer. After reading it, never speak of it without a little scornful turn, and throw it in your citron bookcase behind the other books—I should even leave a few pages uncut.

‘Tis not only a few pages that will be left uncut by the imperfect creature, who thinks himself philosopher, because he has remained always stranger to those reckless emotions, which cause all our happiness of a week to depend upon a glance. Some people, coming to the age of discretion, use the whole force of their vanity to forget that there was a day when they were able to stoop so low as to court a woman and expose themselves to the humiliation of a refusal: this book will win their hatred. Among the many clever people, whom I have seen condemn this work, for different reasons but all angrily, [Pg 8]those only seemed to me ridiculous, who had the twofold conceit to pretend always to have been above the weakness of sensibility, and yet to possess enough penetration to judge a priori of the degree of exactitude of a philosophic treatise, which is nothing but an ordered description of these weaknesses.

The grave persons, who enjoy in society their reputation as safe men with no romantic nonsense, are far nearer to the understanding of a novel, however impassioned, than of a book of philosophy, wherein the author describes coldly the various stages of the malady of the soul called Love. The novel moves them a little; but before the philosophic treatise these sensible people are like blind men, who getting a description of the pictures in a museum read out to them, would say to the author: “You must agree, sir, that your work is horribly obscure.” What is to happen if these blind men chance to be wits, established long since in possession of that title and with sovereign claims to clairvoyance? The poor author will be treated prettily. In fact, it is what happened to him at the time of the first edition. Several copies were actually burnt through the raging vanity of very clever people. I do not speak of insults all the more flattering for their fury: the author was proclaimed to be coarse, immoral, a writer for the people, a suspicious character, etc. In countries outworn by monarchy, these titles are the surest reward for whoever thinks good to write on morals and does not dedicate his book to the Mme. Dubarry of the day. Blessed literature, if it were not in fashion, and interested those alone for whom it was written!

In the time of the Cid, Corneille was nothing for M. le Marquis de Danjeau[3]but “a good fellow.” Today the whole world thinks itself made to read M. de Lamartine: so much the better for his publisher, but so much the worse, and a hundred times the worse, for [Pg 9]that great poet. In our days genius offers accommodation to people to whom, under penalty of losing caste, it should never so much as give a thought.

The laborious and active, very estimable and very positive life of a counsellor of State, of a manufacturer of cotton goods or of a banker with a keen eye for loans finds its reward in millions, not in tender sensation. Little by little the heart of these gentlemen ossifies: the positive and the useful are for them everything, and their soul is closed to that feeling, which of all others has the greatest need of our leisure and makes us most unfit for any rational and steady occupation.

The only object of this preface is to proclaim that this book has the misfortune of being incomprehensible to all who have not found time to play the fool. Many people will feel offended and I trust they will go no further.

[1] [May, 1826.—Tr.]

[2] “Cut this passage out,” say my friends. “Nothing could be truer, but beware of the men of business: they’ll cry out on the aristocrat.” In 1812 I was not afraid of the Treasury: so why should I be afraid of the millionaire in 1820? The ships supplied to the Pasha of Egypt have opened my eyes in their direction, and I fear nothing but what I respect.

[3] Vide p. 120 of Mémoires de Danjeau (Édition Genlis).

[Pg 10]


I write for a hundred readers only and of these unhappy charming beings, without hypocrisy or moral cant, whom I would please, I know scarcely a couple. Of such as lie to gain consideration as writers, I take little heed. Certain fine ladies should keep to the accounts of their cook and the fashionable preacher of the day, be it Massillon or Mme. Necker, to be able to talk on these topics with the women of importance who mete out consideration. And to be sure, in France this noble distinction is always to be won by turning high priest of any fad.

To anyone who would read this book I would say: In all your life have you been unhappy six months for love?

Or, was your soul ever touched by sorrow not connected with the thought of a lawsuit, with failure at the last election, or with having cut a less brilliant figure than usual last season at Aix? I will continue my indiscretions and ask if in the year you have read any of those impudent works, which compel the reader to think? For example, Émile of J. J. Rousseau, or the six volumes of Montaigne? If, I should say, you have never suffered through this infirmity of noble minds, if you have not, in defiance of nature, the habit of thinking as you read, this book will give you a grudge against its author: for it will make you suspect that there exists a certain happiness, unknown to you and known to Mlle. de Lespinasse.

[1] [May, 1834.—Tr.]

[Pg 11]


I come to beg indulgence of the reader for the peculiar form of this Physiology of Love. It is twenty-eight years (in 1842) since the turmoil, which followed the fall of Napoleon, deprived me of my position. Two years earlier chance threw me, immediately after the horrors of the retreat from Russia, into the midst of a charming town, where I had the enchanting prospect of passing the rest of my days. In happy Lombardy, at Milan, at Venice, the great, or rather only, business of life is pleasure. No attention, there, to the deeds and movements of your neighbour; hardly a troubled thought for what is to happen to you. If a man notice the existence of his neighbour, it does not enter his head to hate him. Take away from the occupations of a French provincial town jealousy—and what is left? The absence, the impossibility of that cruel jealousy forms the surest part of that happiness, which draws all the provincials to Paris.

Following the masked balls of Carnival, which in 1820 was more brilliant than usual, the noise of five or six completely reckless proceedings occupied the society of Milan an entire month; although they are used over there to things which in France would pass for incredible. The fear of ridicule would in this country paralyse such fantastic actions: only to speak of them I need great courage.

One evening people were discussing profoundly the [Pg 12]effects and the causes of these extravagances, at the house of the charming Mme. Pietra Grua(6), who happened, extraordinarily enough, not to be mixed up with these escapades. The thought came to me that perhaps in less than a year I should have nothing left of all those strange facts, and of the causes alleged for them, but a recollection, on which I could not depend. I got hold of a concert programme, and wrote a few words on it in pencil. A game of faro was suggested: we were thirty seated round a card-table, but the conversation was so animated that people forgot to play. Towards the close of the evening came in Col. Scotti, one of the most charming men in the Italian army: he was asked for his quantum of circumstances relative to the curious facts with which we were busy, and, indeed, his story of certain things, which chance had confided to his knowledge, gave them an entirely new aspect. I took up my concert programme and added these new circumstances.

This collection of particulars on Love was continued in the same way, with pencil and odd scraps of paper, snatched up in the salons, where I heard the anecdotes told. Soon I looked for a common rule by which to recognise different degrees in them. Two months later fear of being taken for a Carbonaro made me return to Paris—only for a few months I hoped, but never again have I seen Milan, where I had passed seven years.

Pining with boredom at Paris, I conceived the idea of occupying myself again with the charming country from which fear had driven me. I strung together my scraps of paper and presented the book to a publisher. But soon a difficulty was raised: the printer declared that it was impossible to work from notes written in pencil and I could see that he found such copy beneath his dignity. The printer’s young apprentice, who brought me back my notes, seemed quite ashamed of the more than doubtful compliment, which had been put into [Pg 13]his mouth: he knew how to write and I dictated to him my pencil notes.

I understood, too, that discretion required me to change the proper names, and, above all, abridge the anecdotes. Although no one reads in Milan, the book, if ever it reached there, might have seemed a piece of wicked mischief.

So I brought out an ill-fated volume. I have the courage to own that I despised at that period elegance in style. I saw the young apprentice wholly taken up with avoiding sentence-endings that were unmusical and odd sounds in the arrangement of words. In return, he made throughout no scruple of changing details of fact, difficult to express: Voltaire himself is afraid of things which are difficult to tell.

The Essay on Love had no claim to merit except the number of the fine shades of feeling, which I begged the reader to verify among his memories, if he were happy enough to have any. But in all this there was something much worse: I was then, as ever, very inexperienced in the department of literature and the publisher, to whom I had presented the MS., printed it on bad paper and in an absurd format. In fact a month later, when I asked him for news of the book—”On peut dire qu’il est sacré,”[2] he said, “For no one comes near it.”

It had never even crossed my mind to solicit articles in the papers: such a thing would have seemed to me an ignominy. And yet no work was in more pressing need of recommendation to the patience of the reader. Under the menace of becoming unintelligible at the very outset, it was necessary to bring the public to accept the new word “crystallisation,” suggested as a lively expression for that collection of strange fancies, which we weave round our idea of the loved one, as true and even indubitable realities.

[Pg 14]At that time wholly absorbed in my love for the least details, which I had lately observed in the Italy of my dreams, I avoided with care every concession, every amenity of style, which might have rendered the Essay on Love less peculiarly fantastic in the eyes of men of letters.

Further, I was not flattering to the public. Literature at that time, all defaced by our great and recent misfortunes, seemed to have no other interest than the consolation of our unhappy pride: it used to rhyme “gloire” with “victoire,” “guerriers” with “lauriers,”[3] etc. The true circumstances of the situations, which it pretends to treat, seem never to have any attraction for the tedious literature of that period: it looks for nothing but an opportunity of complimenting that people, enslaved to fashion, whom a great man had called a great nation, forgetting that they were only great on condition that their leader was himself.

As the result of my ignorance of the exigencies of the humblest success, I found no more than seventeen readers between 1822 and 1833: it is doubtful whether the Essay on Love has been understood after twenty years of existence by a hundred connoisseurs. A few have had the patience to observe the various phases of this disease in the people infected with it in their circle; for we must speak of it as a disease, in order to understand that passion which in the last thirty years our fear of ridicule has taken so much trouble to hide—it is this way which sometimes leads to its cure.

Now and now only, after half a century of revolutions, engrossing one after another our whole attention, now and now only after five complete changes in the form and the tendencies of our government, does the revolution just begin to show itself in our way of living. Love, or that which commonly appropriates Love’s name and fills its place, was all-powerful in the France of [Pg 15]Lewis XV. Colonels were created by the ladies of the court; and that court was nothing less than the fairest place in the kingdom. Fifty years after, the court is no more; and the gift of a licence to sell tobacco in the meanest provincial town is beyond the power of the most surely established ladies of the reigning bourgeoisie or of the pouting nobility.

It must be owned, women are out of fashion. In our brilliant salons the young men of twenty affect not to address them; they much prefer to stand round the noisy talker dealing, in a provincial accent, with the question of the right to vote, and to try and slip in their own little word. The rich youths, who, to keep up a show of the good-fellowship of past times, take a pride in seeming frivolous, prefer to talk horses and play high in the circles where women are excluded. The deadly indifference which seems to preside over the relations of young men and the women of five-and-twenty, for whose presence society has to thank the boredom of marriage, will bring, perhaps, a few wise spirits to accept this scrupulously exact description of the successive phases of the malady called Love.

Seeing the terrible change which has plunged us into the stagnation of to-day, and makes unintelligible to us the society of 1778, such as we find it in the letters of Diderot to Mlle. Voland, his mistress, or in the Memoirs of Madame d’Épinay, a man might ask the question, which of our successive governments has killed in us the faculty of enjoying ourselves, and drawn us nearer to the gloomiest people on the face of the earth? The only passable thing which that people have invented—parliament and the honesty of their parties—we are unable even to copy. In return, the stupidest of their gloomy conceptions, the spirit of dignity, has come among us to take the place of our French gaiety, which is to be found now only in the five hundred balls in the outskirts of Paris or in the south of France, beyond Bordeaux.

[Pg 16]But which of our successive governments has cost us the fearful misfortune of anglicisation? Must we accuse that energetic government of 1793, which prevented the foreigners from coming to pitch their camp in Montmartre—that government which in a few years will seem heroic in our eyes and forms a worthy prelude to that, which under Napoleon, went forth to carry our name into all the capitals of Europe?

We shall pass over the well-meaning stupidity of the Directoire, illustrated by the talents of Carnot and the immortal campaign of 1796–1797 in Italy.

The corruption of the court of Barras still recalled something of the gaiety of the old order; the graces of Madame Bonaparte proved that we had no aptitude at that time for the churlishness and charnel-house of the English.

The profound respect, which despite the jealousy of the faubourg Saint-Germain, we could not but feel for the First Consul’s method of government, and the men whose superior merit adorned the society of Paris—such as the Cretets and the Darus—relieves the Empire of the burden of responsibility for the remarkable change which has been effected, in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the character of the French.

Unnecessary to carry my investigation further: the reader will reflect and be quite able to draw his own conclusions.

[1] [1842. As Stendhal died early in that year, this probably is his last writing.—Tr.]

[2] [“One might say it’s taboo…” “Taboo” is a poor equivalent for “sacré,” which means “cursed” as well as “blessed.”—Tr.]

[3] [“Glory with victory, warrior with laurel.”—Tr.]

[Pg 17]


[Pg 18]

[Pg 19]



My aim is to comprehend that passion, of which every sincere development has a character of beauty.

There are four kinds of love.

1. Passion-love—that of the Portuguese nun(1), of Héloïse for Abelard, of Captain de Vésel, of Sergeant de Cento.

2. Gallant love—that which ruled in Paris towards 1760, to be found in the memoirs and novels of the period, in Crébillon, Lauzun, Duclos, Marmontel, Chamfort, Mme. d’Épinay, etc. etc.

‘Tis a picture in which everything, to the very shadows, should be rose-colour, in which may enter nothing disagreeable under any pretext whatsoever, at the cost of a lapse of etiquette, of good taste, of refinement, etc. A man of breeding foresees all the ways of acting, that he is likely to adopt or meet with in the different phases of this love. True love is often less refined; for that in which there is no passion and nothing unforeseen, has always a store of ready wit: the latter is a cold and pretty miniature, the former a picture by the Carracci. Passion-love carries us away in defiance of all our interests, gallant love manages always to respect them. True, if we take from this poor love its vanity, there is very little left: once stripped, it is like a tottering convalescent, scarcely able to drag himself along.

3. Physical love. Out hunting—a fresh, pretty country [Pg 20]girl crosses your path and escapes into the wood. Everyone knows the love founded on this kind of pleasure: and all begin that way at sixteen, however parched and unhappy the character.

4. Vanity-love. The vast majority of men, especially in France, desire and have a fashionable woman, in the same way as a man gets a fine horse, as something which the luxury of a young man demands. Their vanity more or less flattered, more or less piqued, gives birth to transports of feelings. Sometimes there is also physical love, but by no means always: often there is not so much as physical pleasure. A duchess is never more than thirty for a bourgeois, said the Duchesse de Chaulnes, and those admitted to the Court of that just man, king Lewis of Holland, recall with amusement a pretty woman from the Hague, who could not help finding any man charming who was Duke or Prince. But true to the principle of monarchy, as soon as a Prince arrived at Court, the Duke was dismissed: she was, as it were, the decoration of the diplomatic body.

The happiest case of this uninspiring relationship is that in which to physical pleasure is added habit. In that case store of memories makes it resemble love a little; there is the pique of self-esteem and sadness on being left; then, romance forces upon us its ideas and we believe that we are in love and melancholy, for vanity aspires to credit itself with a great passion. This, at least, is certain that, whatever kind of love be the source of pleasure, as soon as the soul is stirred, the pleasure is keen and its memory alluring, and in this passion, contrary to most of the others, the memory of our losses seems always to exceed the bounds of what we can hope for in the future.

Sometimes, in vanity-love habit or despair of finding better produces a kind of friendship, of all kinds the least pleasant: it prides itself on its security, etc.[1]

[Pg 21]Physical pleasure, being of our nature, is known to everybody, but it takes no more than a subordinate position in the eyes of tender and passionate souls. If they raise a laugh in the salons, if often they are made unhappy in the intrigues of society, in return the pleasure which they feel must remain always inaccessible to those hearts, whose beat only vanity and gold can quicken.

A few virtuous and sensitive women have scarcely a conception of physical pleasures: they have so rarely risked them, if one may use the expression, and even then the transports of passion-love caused bodily pleasure almost to be forgotten.

There are men victims and instruments of diabolical pride, of a pride in the style of Alfieri. Those people who, perhaps, are cruel because, like Nero, judging all men after the pattern of their own heart, they are always a-tremble—such people, I say, can attain physical pleasure only in so far as it is accompanied by the greatest possible exercise of pride, in so far, that is to say, as they practise cruelties on the companion of their pleasures. Hence the horrors of Justine(2). At any rate such men have no sense of security.

To conclude, instead of distinguishing four different forms of love, we can easily admit eight or ten shades of difference.  Perhaps mankind has as many ways of feeling as of seeing; but these differences of nomenclature alter in no degree the judgments which follow.  Subject to the same laws, all forms of love, which can be seen here below, have their birth, life and death or ascend to immortality.”  Stendhal, On Love; Prefaces & Chapter One, “On Love:” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/53720/53720-h/53720-h.htm#Page_19.

Numero Tres“Felicity is a village in Trinidad on the edge of the Caroni plain, the wide central plain that still grows sugar and to which indentured cane cutters were brought after emancipation, so the small population of Felicity is East Indian, and on the afternoon that I visited it with friends from America, all the faces along its road were Indian, which, as I hope to show, was a moving, beautiful thing, because this Saturday afternoon Ramleela,the epic dramatization of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, was going to be performed, and the costumed actors from the village were assembling on a field strung with different-coloured flags, like a new gas station, and beautiful Indian boys in red and black were aiming arrows haphazardly into the afternoon light.  Low blue mountains on the horizon, bright grass, clouds that would gather colour before the light went.  Felicity!  What a gentle Anglo-Saxon name for an epical memory.
Under an open shed on the edge of the field, there were two huge armatures of bamboo that looked like immense cages. They were parts of the body of a god, his calves or thighs, which, fitted and reared, would make a gigantic effigy. This effigy would be burnt as a conclusion to the epic. The cane structures flashed a predictable parallel: Shelley’s sonnet on the fallen statue of Ozymandias and his empire, that “colossal wreck” in its empty desert.Drummers had lit a fire in the shed and they eased the skins of their tables nearer the flames to tighten them. The saffron flames, the bright grass, and the hand-woven armatures of the fragmented god who would be burnt were not in any desert where imperial power had finally toppled but were part of a ritual, evergreen season that, like the cane-burning harvest, is annually repeated, the point of such sacrifice being its repetition, the point of the destruction being renewal through fire.

Deities were entering the field. What we generally call “Indian music” was blaring from the open platformed shed from which the epic would be narrated. Costumed actors were arriving. Princes and gods, I supposed. What an unfortunate confession! “Gods, I suppose” is the shrug that embodies our African and Asian diasporas. I had often thought of but never seen Ramleela, and had never seen this theatre, an open field, with village children as warriors, princes, and gods. I had no idea what the epic story was, who its hero was, what enemies he fought, yet I had recently adapted the Odyssey for a theatre in England, presuming that the audience knew the trials of Odysseus, hero of another Asia Minor epic, while nobody in Trinidad knew any more than I did about Rama, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, apart from the Indians, a phrase I use pervertedly because that is the kind of remark you can still hear in Trinidad: “apart from the Indians”.

It was as if, on the edge of the Central Plain, there was another plateau, a raft on which the Ramayana would be poorly performed in this ocean of cane, but that was my writer’s view of things, and it is wrong. I was seeing the Ramleela at Felicity as theatre when it was faith.

Multiply that moment of self-conviction when an actor, made-up and costumed, nods to his mirror before stopping on stage in the belief that he is a reality entering an illusion and you would have what I presumed was happening to the actors of this epic. But they were not actors. They had been chosen; or they themselves had chosen their roles in this sacred story that would go on for nine afternoons over a two-hour period till the sun set. They were not amateurs but believers. There was no theatrical term to define them. They did not have to psych themselves up to play their roles. Their acting would probably be as buoyant and as natural as those bamboo arrows crisscrossing the afternoon pasture. They believed in what they were playing, in the sacredness of the text, the validity of India, while I, out of the writer’s habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual echo of History – the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, and trumpeting elephants – when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boys’ screams, in the sweets-stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss. The name Felicity made sense.

Consider the scale of Asia reduced to these fragments: the small white exclamations of minarets or the stone balls of temples in the cane fields, and one can understand the self-mockery and embarrassment of those who see these rites as parodic, even degenerate. These purists look on such ceremonies as grammarians look at a dialect, as cities look on provinces and empires on their colonies. Memory that yearns to join the centre, a limb remembering the body from which it has been severed, like those bamboo thighs of the god. In other words, the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. “No people there”, to quote Froude, “in the true sense of the word”. No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.

The performance was like a dialect, a branch of its original language, an abridgement of it, but not a distortion or even a reduction of its epic scale. Here in Trinidad I had discovered that one of the greatest epics of the world was seasonally performed, not with that desperate resignation of preserving a culture, but with an openness of belief that was as steady as the wind bending the cane lances of the Caroni plain. We had to leave before the play began to go through the creeks of the Caroni Swamp, to catch the scarlet ibises coming home at dusk. In a performance as natural as those of the actors of the Ramleela, we watched the flocks come in as bright as the scarlet of the boy archers, as the red flags, and cover an islet until it turned into a flowering tree, an anchored immortelle. The sigh of History meant nothing here. These two visions, the Ramleela and the arrowing flocks of scarlet ibises, blent into a single gasp of gratitude. Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.

We make too much of that long groan which underlines the past. I felt privileged to discover the ibises as well as the scarlet archers of Felicity.

The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts. Looking around slowly, as a camera would, taking in the low blue hills over Port of Spain, the village road and houses, the warrior-archers, the god-actors and their handlers, and music already on the sound track, I wanted to make a film that would be a long-drawn sigh over Felicity. I was filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India, but why “evocations”? Why not “celebrations of a real presence”? Why should India be “lost” when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not “continuing”, why not the perpetuation of joy in Felicity and in all the other nouns of the Central Plain: Couva, Chaguanas, Charley Village? Why was I not letting my pleasure open its windows wide? I was enticed like any Trinidadian to the ecstasies of their claim, because ecstasy was the pitch of the sinuous drumming in the loudspeakers. I was entitled to the feast of Husein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Dragon Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.

And this is the exact process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its “making” but its remaking, the fragmented memory, the armature that frames the god, even the rite that surrenders it to a final pyre; the god assembled cane by cane, reed by weaving reed, line by plaited line, as the artisans of Felicity would erect his holy echo.

Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery. Tonally the individual voice is a dialect; it shapes its own accent, its own vocabulary and melody in defiance of an imperial concept of language, the language of Ozymandias, libraries and dictionaries, law courts and critics, and churches, universities, political dogma, the diction of institutions. Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main. The dialects of my archipelago seem as fresh to me as those raindrops on the statue’s forehead, not the sweat made from the classic exertion of frowning marble, but the condensations of a refreshing element, rain and salt.

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

And here they are, all in a single Caribbean city, Port of Spain, the sum of history, Trollope’s “non-people”. A downtown babel of shop signs and streets, mongrelized, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven. Because that is what such a city is, in the New World, a writer’s heaven.

A culture, we all know, is made by its cities.

Another first morning home, impatient for the sunrise – a broken sleep. Darkness at five, and the drapes not worth opening; then, in the sudden light, a cream-walled, brown-roofed police station bordered with short royal palms, in the colonial style, back of it frothing trees and taller palms, a pigeon fluttering into the cover of an cave, a rain-stained block of once-modern apartments, the morning side road into the station without traffic. All part of a surprising peace. This quiet happens with every visit to a city that has deepened itself in me. The flowers and the hills are easy, affection for them predictable; it is the architecture that, for the first morning, disorients. A return from American seductions used to make the traveller feel that something was missing, something was trying to complete itself, like the stained concrete apartments. Pan left along the window and the excrescences rear – a city trying to soar, trying to be brutal, like an American city in silhouette, stamped from the same mould as Columbus or Des Moines. An assertion of power, its decor bland, its air conditioning pitched to the point where its secretarial and executive staff sport competing cardigans; the colder the offices the more important, an imitation of another climate. A longing, even an envy of feeling cold.

In serious cities, in grey, militant winter with its short afternoons, the days seem to pass by in buttoned overcoats, every building appears as a barracks with lights on in its windows, and when snow comes, one has the illusion of living in a Russian novel, in the nineteenth century, because of the literature of winter. So visitors to the Caribbean must feel that they are inhabiting a succession of postcards. Both climates are shaped by what we have read of them. For tourists, the sunshine cannot be serious. Winter adds depth and darkness to life as well as to literature, and in the unending summer of the tropics not even poverty or poetry (in the Antilles poverty is poetry with a V, une vie, a condition of life as well as of imagination) seems capable of being profound because the nature around it is so exultant, so resolutely ecstatic, like its music. A culture based on joy is bound to be shallow. Sadly, to sell itself, the Caribbean encourages the delights of mindlessness, of brilliant vacuity, as a place to flee not only winter but that seriousness that comes only out of culture with four seasons. So how can there be a people there, in the true sense of the word?

They know nothing about seasons in which leaves let go of the year, in which spires fade in blizzards and streets whiten, of the erasures of whole cities by fog, of reflection in fireplaces; instead, they inhabit a geography whose rhythm, like their music, is limited to two stresses: hot and wet, sun and rain, light and shadow, day and night, the limitations of an incomplete metre, and are therefore a people incapable of the subtleties of contradiction, of imaginative complexity. So be it. We cannot change contempt.

Ours are not cities in the accepted sense, but no one wants them to be. They dictate their own proportions, their own definitions in particular places and in a prose equal to that of their detractors, so that now it is not just St. James but the streets and yards that Naipaul commemorates, its lanes as short and brilliant as his sentences; not just the noise and jostle of Tunapuna but the origins of C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, not just Felicity village on the Caroni plain, but Selvon Country, and that is the way it goes up the islands now: the old Dominica of Jean Rhys still very much the way she wrote of it; and the Martinique of the early Cesaire; Perse’s Guadeloupe, even without the pith helmets and the mules; and what delight and privilege there was in watching a literature – one literature in several imperial languages, French, English, Spanish – bud and open island after island in the early morning of a culture, not timid, not derivative, any more than the hard white petals of the frangipani are derivative and timid. This is not a belligerent boast but a simple celebration of inevitability: that this flowering had to come.

On a heat-stoned afternoon in Port of Spain, some alley white with glare, with love vine spilling over a fence, palms and a hazed mountain appear around a corner to the evocation of Vaughn or Herbert’s “that shady city of palm-trees”, or to the memory of a Hammond organ from a wooden chapel in Castries, where the congregation sang “Jerusalem, the Golden”. It is hard for me to see such emptiness as desolation. It is that patience that is the width of Antillean life, and the secret is not to ask the wrong thing of it, not to demand of it an ambition it has no interest in. The traveller reads this as lethargy, as torpor.

Here there are not enough books, one says, no theatres, no museums, simply not enough to do. Yet, deprived of books, a man must fall back on thought, and out of thought, if he can learn to order it, will come the urge to record, and in extremity, if he has no means of recording, recitation, the ordering of memory which leads to metre, to commemoration. There can be virtues in deprivation, and certainly one virtue is salvation from a cascade of high mediocrity, since books are now not so much created as remade. Cities create a culture, and all we have are these magnified market towns, so what are the proportions of the ideal Caribbean city? A surrounding, accessible countryside with leafy suburbs, and if the city is lucky, behind it, spacious plains. Behind it, fine mountains; before it, an indigo sea. Spires would pin its centre and around them would be leafy, shadowy parks. Pigeons would cross its sky in alphabetic patterns, carrying with them memories of a belief in augury, and at the heart of the city there would be horses, yes, horses, those animals last seen at the end of the nineteenth century drawing broughams and carriages with top-hatted citizens, horses that live in the present tense without elegiac echoes from their hooves, emerging from paddocks at the Queen’s Park Savannah at sunrise, when mist is unthreading from the cool mountains above the roofs, and at the centre of the city seasonally there would be races, so that citizens could roar at the speed and grace of these nineteenth-century animals. Its docks, not obscured by smoke or deafened by too. much machinery, and above all, it would be so racially various that the cultures of the world – the Asiatic, the Mediterranean, the European, the African – would be represented in it, its humane variety more exciting than Joyce’s Dublin. Its citizens would intermarry as they chose, from instinct, not tradition, until their children find it increasingly futile to trace their genealogy. It would not have too many avenues difficult or dangerous for pedestrians, its mercantile area would be a cacophony of accents, fragments of the old language that would be silenced immediately at five o’clock, its docks resolutely vacant on Sundays.

This is Port of Spain to me, a city ideal in its commercial and human proportions, where a citizen is a walker and not a pedestrian, and this is how Athens may have been before it became a cultural echo.

The finest silhouettes of Port of Spain are idealizations of the craftsman’s handiwork, not of concrete and glass, but of baroque woodwork, each fantasy looking more like an involved drawing of itself than the actual building. Behind the city is the Caroni plain, with its villages, Indian prayer flags, and fruit vendors’ stalls along the highway over which ibises come like floating flags. Photogenic poverty! Postcard sadnesses! I am not re-creating Eden; I mean, by “the Antilles”, the reality of light, of work, of survival. I mean a house on the side of a country road, I mean the Caribbean Sea, whose smell is the smell of refreshing possibility as well as survival. Survival is the triumph of stubborness, and spiritual stubborness, a sublime stupidity, is what makes the occupation of poetry endure, when there are so many things that should make it futile. Those things added together can go under one collective noun: “the world”.

This is the visible poetry of the Antilles, then. Survival.

If you wish to understand that consoling pity with which the islands were regarded, look at the tinted engravings of Antillean forests, with their proper palm trees, ferns, and waterfalls. They have a civilizing decency, like Botanical Gardens, as if the sky were a glass ceiling under which a colonized vegetation is arranged for quiet walks and carriage rides. Those views are incised with a pathos that guides the engraver’s tool and the topographer’s pencil, and it is this pathos which, tenderly ironic, gave villages names like Felicity. A century looked at a landscape furious with vegetation in the wrong light and with the wrong eye. It is such pictures that are saddening rather than the tropics itself. These delicate engravings of sugar mills and harbours, of native women in costume, are seen as a part of History, that History which looked over the shoulder of the engraver and, later, the photographer. History can alter the eye and the moving hand to conform a view of itself; it can rename places for the nostalgia in an echo; it can temper the glare of tropical light to elegiac monotony in prose, the tone of judgement in Conrad, in the travel journals of Trollope.

These travellers carried with them the infection of their own malaise, and their prose reduced even the landscape to melancholia and self-contempt. Every endeavor is belittled as imitation, from architecture to music. There was this conviction in Froude that since History is based on achievement, and since the history of the Antilles was so genetically corrupt, so depressing in its cycles of massacres, slavery, and indenture, a culture was inconceivable and nothing could ever be created in those ramshackle ports, those monotonously feudal sugar estates. Not only the light and salt of Antillean mountains defied this, but the demotic vigour and variety of their inhabitants. Stand close to a waterfall and you will stop hearing its roar. To be still in the nineteenth century, like horses, as Brodsky has written, may not be such a bad deal, and much of our life in the Antilles still seems to be in the rhythm of the last century, like the West Indian novel.

By writers even as refreshing as Graham Greene, the Caribbean is looked at with elegiac pathos, a prolonged sadness to which Levi-Strauss has supplied an epigraph: Tristes Tropiques. Their tristesse derives from an attitude to the Caribbean dusk, to rain, to uncontrollable vegetation, to the provincial ambition of Caribbean cities where brutal replicas of modern architecture dwarf the small houses and streets. The mood is understandable, the melancholy as contagious as the fever of a sunset, like the gold fronds of diseased coconut palms, but there is something alien and ultimately wrong in the way such a sadness, even a morbidity, is described by English, French, or some of our exiled writers. It relates to a misunderstanding of the light and the people on whom the light falls.

These writers describe the ambitions of our unfinished cities, their unrealized, homiletic conclusion, but the Caribbean city may conclude just at that point where it is satisfied with its own scale, just as Caribbean culture is not evolving but already shaped. Its proportions are not to be measured by the traveller or the exile, but by its own citizenry and architecture. To be told you are not yet a city or a culture requires this response. I am not your city or your culture. There might be less of Tristes Tropiques after that.

Here, on the raft of this dais, there is the sound of the applauding surf: our landscape, our history recognized, “at last”. At Last is one of the first Caribbean books. It was written by the Victorian traveller Charles Kingsley. It is one of the early books to admit the Antillean landscape and its figures into English literature. I have never read it but gather that its tone is benign. The Antillean archipelago was there to be written about, not to write itself, by Trollope, by Patrick Leigh-Fermor, in the very tone in which I almost wrote about the village spectacle at Felicity, as a compassionate and beguiled outsider, distancing myself from Felicity village even while I was enjoying it. What is hidden cannot be loved. The traveller cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion. If he returns to what he loved in a landscape and stays there, he is no longer a traveller but in stasis and concentration, the lover of that particular part of earth, a native. So many people say they “love the Caribbean”, meaning that someday they plan to return for a visit but could never live there, the usual benign insult of the traveller, the tourist. These travellers, at their kindest, were devoted to the same patronage, the islands passing in profile, their vegetal luxury, their backwardness and poverty. Victorian prose dignified them. They passed by in beautiful profiles and were forgotten, like a vacation.

Alexis Saint-Leger Leger, whose writer’s name is Saint-John Perse, was the first Antillean to win this prize for poetry. He was born in Guadeloupe and wrote in French, but before him, there was nothing as fresh and clear in feeling as those poems of his childhood, that of a privileged white child on an Antillean plantation, Pour Feter une Enfance, Eloges, and later Images a Crusoe. At last, the first breeze on the page, salt-edged and self-renewing as the trade winds, the sound of pages and palm trees turning as “the odour of coffee ascents the stairs”.

Caribbean genius is condemned to contradict itself. To celebrate Perse, we might be told, is to celebrate the old plantation system, to celebrate the beque or plantation rider, verandahs and mulatto servants, a white French language in a white pith helmet, to celebrate a rhetoric of patronage and hauteur; and even if Perse denied his origins, great writers often have this folly of trying to smother their source, we cannot deny him any more than we can the African Aime Cesaire. This is not accommodation, this is the ironic republic that is poetry, since, when I see cabbage palms moving their fronds at sunrise, I think they are reciting Perse.

The fragrant and privileged poetry that Perse composed to celebrate his white childhood and the recorded Indian music behind the brown young archers of Felicity, with the same cabbage palms against the same Antillean sky, pierce me equally. I feel the same poignancy of pride in the poems as in the faces. Why, given the history of the Antilles, should this be remarkable? The history of the world, by which of course we mean Europe, is a record of intertribal lacerations, of ethnic cleansings. At last, islands not written about but writing themselves! The palms and the Muslim minarets are Antillean exclamations. At last! the royal palms of Guadeloupe recite Éloges by heart.

Later, in “Anabase”, Perse assembled fragments of an imaginary epic, with the clicking teeth of frontier gates, barren wadis with the froth of poisonous lakes, horsemen burnoosed in sandstorms, the opposite of cool Caribbean mornings, yet not necessarily a contrast any more than some young brown archer at Felicity, hearing the sacred text blared across the flagged field, with its battles and elephants and monkey-gods, in a contrast to the white child in Guadeloupe assembling fragments of his own epic from the lances of the cane fields, the estate carts and oxens, and the calligraphy of bamboo leaves from the ancient languages, Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic, on the Antillean sky. From the Ramayana to Anabasis, from Guadeloupe to Trinidad, all that archaeology of fragments lying around, from the broken African kingdoms, from the crevasses of Canton, from Syria and Lebanon, vibrating not under the earth but in our raucous, demotic streets.

A boy with weak eyes skims a flat stone across the flat water of an Aegean inlet, and that ordinary action with the scything elbow contains the skipping lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and another child aims a bamboo arrow at a village festival, another hears the rustling march of cabbage palms in a Caribbean sunrise, and from that sound, with its fragments of tribal myth, the compact expedition of Perse’s epic is launched, centuries and archipelagoes apart. For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.

There is a force of exultation, a celebration of luck, when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of a culture that is defining itself, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, in that self-defining dawn, which is why, especially at the edge of the sea, it is good to make a ritual of the sunrise. Then the noun, the “Antilles” ripples like brightening water, and the sounds of leaves, palm fronds, and birds are the sounds of a fresh dialect, the native tongue. The personal vocabulary, the individual melody whose metre is one’s biography, joins in that sound, with any luck, and the body moves like a walking, a waking island.

This is the benediction that is celebrated, a fresh language and a fresh people, and this is the frightening duty owed.

I stand here in their name, if not their image – but also in the name of the dialect they exchange like the leaves of the trees whose names are suppler, greener, more morning-stirred than English – laurier canelles, bois-flot, bois-canot – or the valleys the trees mention – Fond St. Jacques, Matoonya, Forestier, Roseau, Mahaut – or the empty beaches – L’Anse Ivrogne, Case en Bas, Paradis – all songs and histories in themselves, pronounced not in French – but in patois.

One rose hearing two languages, one of the trees, one of school children reciting in English:

I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
Oh, solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place …

While in the country to the same metre, but to organic instruments, handmade violin, chac-chac, and goatskin drum, a girl named Sensenne singing:

Si mwen di ‘ous ça fait mwen la peine
‘Ous kai dire ça vrai.

(If I told you that caused me pain
You’ll say, “It’s true”.)
Si mwen di ‘ous ça pentetrait mwen
‘Ous peut dire ça vrai
(If I told you you pierced my heart
You’d say, “It’s true”.)
Ces mamailles actuellement
Pas ka faire l ‘amour z’autres pour un rien.

(Children nowadays
Don’t make love for nothing.)

It is not that History is obliterated by this sunrise. It is there in Antillean geography, in the vegetation itself. The sea sighs with the drowned from the Middle Passage, the butchery of its aborigines, Carib and Aruac and Taino, bleeds in the scarlet of the immortelle, and even the actions of surf on sand cannot erase the African memory, or the lances of cane as a green prison where indentured Asians, the ancestors of Felicity, are still serving time.

That is what I have read around me from boyhood, from the beginnings of poetry, the grace of effort. In the hard mahogany of woodcutters: faces, resinous men, charcoal burners; in a man with a cutlass cradled across his forearm, who stands on the verge with the usual anonymous khaki dog; in the extra clothes he put on this morning, when it was cold when he rose in the thinning dark to go and make his garden in the heights – the heights, the garden, being miles away from his house, but that is where he has his land – not to mention the fishermen, the footmen on trucks, groaning up mornes, all fragments of Africa originally but shaped and hardened and rooted now in the island’s life, illiterate in the way leaves are illiterate; they do not read, they are there to be read, and if they are properly read, they create their own literature.

But in our tourist brochures the Caribbean is a blue pool into which the republic dangles the extended foot of Florida as inflated rubber islands bob and drinks with umbrellas float towards her on a raft. This is how the islands from the shame of necessity sell themselves; this is the seasonal erosion of their identity, that high-pitched repetition of the same images of service that cannot distinguish one island from the other, with a future of polluted marinas, land deals negotiated by ministers, and all of this conducted to the music of Happy Hour and the rictus of a smile. What is the earthly paradise for our visitors? Two weeks without rain and a mahogany tan, and, at sunset, local troubadours in straw hats and floral shirts beating “Yellow Bird” and “Banana Boat Song” to death. There is a territory wider than this – wider than the limits made by the map of an island – which is the illimitable sea and what it remembers.

All of the Antilles, every island, is an effort of memory; every mind, every racial biography culminating in amnesia and fog. Pieces of sunlight through the fog and sudden rainbows, arcs-en-ciel. That is the effort, the labour of the Antillean imagination, rebuilding its gods from bamboo frames, phrase by phrase.

Decimation from the Aruac downwards is the blasted root of Antillean history, and the benign blight that is tourism can infect all of those island nations, not gradually, but with imperceptible speed, until each rock is whitened by the guano of white-winged hotels, the arc and descent of progress.

Before it is all gone, before only a few valleys are left, pockets of an older life, before development turns every artist into an anthropologist or folklorist, there are still cherishable places, little valleys that do not echo with ideas, a simplicity of rebeginnings, not yet corrupted by the dangers of change. Not nostalgic sites but occluded sanctities as common and simple as their sunlight. Places as threatened by this prose as a headland is by the bulldozer or a sea almond grove by the surveyor’s string, or from blight, the mountain laurel.

One last epiphany: A basic stone church in a thick valley outside Soufrière, the hills almost shoving the houses around into a brown river, a sunlight that looks oily on the leaves, a backward place, unimportant, and one now being corrupted into significance by this prose. The idea is not to hallow or invest the place with anything, not even memory. African children in Sunday frocks come down the ordinary concrete steps into the church, banana leaves hang and glisten, a truck is parked in a yard, and old women totter towards the entrance. Here is where a real fresco should be painted, one without importance, but one with real faith, mapless, Historyless.

How quickly it could all disappear! And how it is beginning to drive us further into where we hope are impenetrable places, green secrets at the end of bad roads, headlands where the next view is not of a hotel but of some long beach without a figure and the hanging question of some fisherman’s smoke at its far end. The Caribbean is not an idyll, not to its natives. They draw their working strength from it organically, like trees, like the sea almond or the spice laurel of the heights. Its peasantry and its fishermen are not there to be loved or even photographed; they are trees who sweat, and whose bark is filmed with salt, but every day on some island, rootless trees in suits are signing favourable tax breaks with entrepreneurs, poisoning the sea almond and the spice laurel of the mountains to their roots. A morning could come in which governments might ask what happened not merely to the forests and the bays but to a whole people.

They are here again, they recur, the faces, corruptible angels, smooth black skins and white eyes huge with an alarming joy, like those of the Asian children of Felicity at Ramleela; two different religions, two different continents, both filling the heart with the pain that is joy.

But what is joy without fear?  The fear of selfishness that, here on this podium with the world paying attention not to them but to me, I should like to keep these simple joys inviolate, not because they are innocent, but because they are true.  They are as true as when, in the grace of this gift, Perse heard the fragments of his own epic of Asia Minor in the rustling of cabbage palms, that inner Asia of the soul through which imagination wanders, if there is such a thing as imagination as opposed to the collective memory of our entire race, as true as the delight of that warrior-child who flew a bamboo arrow over the flags in the field at Felicity; and now as grateful a joy and a blessed fear as when a boy opened an exercise book and, within the discipline of its margins, framed stanzas that might contain the light of the hills on an island blest by obscurity, cherishing our insignificance.” Derek Wolcott, “The Antilles–Fragments of Epic Memory;” Nobel Literary Laureates Lecture, 1992