Realism and Its Vicissitudes

Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey

by Robert Harvey (Volume editor) Patrice Nganang (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs X, 144 Pages


This collection honors the career of Donald «Sandy» Petrey, Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for over forty years. The diversity of essays – written by colleagues, friends, and former students, and ranging in subject from the traditional Festschrift theme of the honoree’s compelling contributions to the study of realism and the novel’s role in history, to chapters on Susan Sontag’s experimental films, the thought of the late Marxist philosopher André Gorz, silence in the graphic novel, and linguistic disparities between American and Standard Italian – attests to the plasticity of Sandy Petrey’s mind and the ample indications of his work. Best-known (and well-loved) for his often gruff, no-nonsense style in teaching and prose, Petrey is celebrated by those whose careers and ideas he has helped to nurture, inform, and embolden. This collection is a fine text for courses in nineteenth-century as well as contemporary French studies and literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface: For Sandy…
  • 1. The Present King of France Is Bald
  • Notes
  • 2. Sandy Petrey’s Unacknowledged Contribution to Historical Materialism
  • Introduction: Let Them Eat Realist Cake
  • Petrey’s Historical Account of Social Performance: History Is Representational and Representations are Historical
  • A Petreyan Reading of Kate Chopins’ “Désirée’s Baby” with a Splash of Marxism
  • Notes
  • 3. Revolution and God
  • 4. Victor Hugo as Realist in Notre-Dame de Paris
  • The Play’s the Thing
  • Gringoire and Frollo: Two (Mis)Takes on Reality
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 5. Legality, Narrative Order, and Vagabondage in Balzac’s Ferragus
  • Notes
  • 6. André Gorz and the Philosophical Foundation of the Political
  • Remembering Past Times
  • Biographical Introduction
  • The First Clues
  • Realizing Philosophy: The Traitor
  • Ecology As Philosophy
  • The Critique of Normativity
  • Return to The Traitor
  • Notes
  • 7. Sontag Between America and Europe
  • The Making of a European Intellectual in Reborn (1947–1963)
  • The Making of a Film Director—the “European” Sontag
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 8. Ministering to the Culture
  • Notes
  • 9. Desperate Artist
  • The Desperate Artist: Narrative Devices and Silence
  • Formal Techniques of Silence
  • The Discourse of Silence
  • Speaking of Trauma with Silence
  • Notes
  • 10. A Note on English Loan Words in American Italian and Standard Italian
  • Introduction
  • Extra Vowels
  • Consonant Length
  • Stressed Vowel Position
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Contributors

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Our deepest thanks go to Ashar Foley—perspicacious reader, imaginative thinker, and editor extraordinaire—without whose diligence and eagle eye this book might never have seen the light of day. Thanks also to the support of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

—Robert Harvey & Patrice Nganang← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →image

Preface: For Sandy…


The intellectual legacy of Donald Petrey—“Sandy” to the scores of graduate students he trained and regaled with his captivatingly enthusiastic knowledge of literature and theory and to his many colleagues who miss him sorely, now that he has retired from active duty at the university—is the object of this Festschrift.

Fueled by his encyclopedic knowledge, his insatiable appetite for novels, propelled by bold interpretations couched in the most straightforward no-nonsense discourse, Sandy Petrey created and occupied such an important place in literary studies for himself that students were magnetically drawn to him. At the same time, his peers both at Stony Brook and across the continent, turned to his unique perspective on realism, on speech act theory, on the impact of the French Revolution on Europe and the world at large to advance their own research.

Sandy retired from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2012 after forty-three years. Forty-three years during which he never once had a day of absence except in those months when he fought and beat cancer—twice. A brilliant student of Henri Peyre (about whom Sandy says he’d “read everything and understood it”), he came to Stony Brook—“the Berkeley of the east coast”—fresh off a Ph.D. defended at Yale University in 1966 on “Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle.”

True to the quip about Stony Brook being a fledgling sister to the seat of the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park, Sandy’s early forays into theory and interpretation debates saw him excoriating sacred cows: Why, he would ask, were Marxist critics so taken by the royalist Balzac when there was Zola? One of Sandy’s answers was—in a trice—because classical Marxist critics were prudes. He then went on to publish ground-breaking works such as History in the Text: Quatrevingt-Treize and the French Revolution (Purdue, 1980), Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances ← ix | x →of History (Cornell, 1988), and Speech Acts and Literary Theory (Routledge, 1990). Sandy’s circumscribed but razor-sharp use of J.L. Austin drives much of this work. Sandy’s translations of Zola’s Sin of Father Mouret and Jules Vallès’s Insurrectionist are also great indicators of his predilections and orientations.

In the late 1990s, like many of his colleagues, Sandy Petrey became a migrant from area studies—stuck as it often is in a defunct essentialist stance in regard to the relationship between nation and language—to Comparative Literature. There, he thrived. He found the caliber of students that matched his brilliance. He served as chair and even, for a short while, dean of the college. He found colleagues in Comparative Literature with whom he could joust in earnest, yet with whom he could remain friends. At a memorial for one of them—the much regretted Michael Sprinker, who died in 1999 at forty-nine—Sandy led the mournfully joyous gathering in a few verses of L’Internationale.

Shortly after the most recent turn-of-the-century, Sandy leapt into the debate over cultural studies, pulling no punches in defense of what he called “French studies,” as opposed—but only to a certain extent—to French literary studies. His latest book is In the Court of the Pear King: French Culture and the Rise of Realism (Cornell, 2005). The book explores such disparate cultural phenomena as graffiti caricatures of Louis-Philippe and George Sand’s adoption of men’s clothing—disparate, queer, yet infinitely important for the moment and beyond—juxtaposing them with Stendhal and Balzac’s simultaneous development of the techniques of the realist novel that still dominate much of the world’s fiction. In examining what humans deem as real, Petrey points insistently to the hybrid character of the monarch’s caricature as a pear—both totally unlike the king and the king’s spitting image. In the Court of the Pear King crowns Sandy Petrey’s work on realism and theories of realism.

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1. The Present King of France Is Bald


Despite the fact that we came of age during a decades-long era dominated by something we would come to know as “literary theory,” I suspect that many of us who attended high school during the 1970s and 1980s headed into the business of reading, critiquing, and teaching literature because, to paraphrase Wayne Booth, we kept close company with fictional characters and their stories that made an indelible impression on us. Literature delighted and instructed us, thus fulfilling its ancient and classical charge, and we were both happy and quite likely equally satisfied with our investment in the books that occupied a privileged place on our shelves. Even during our undergraduate education, unless we ran into a very progressive professor or were among those who attended either an elite university or college, we were studying literature for the important things it could teach us about the human condition, and the emphasis of classroom pedagogy was invariably on what literature said about enduring aesthetic and philosophical values, themes and problems. We were thoughtful humanists, maybe even belletrists. We knew nothing else and were unaware that there was any other way to engage a literary text.

The challenge of graduate study in literature presented itself as something of an ultimatum. With the introduction of literary theory and criticism into the curricular landscape, resistance was futile. Confronted for the first time with the names Derrida, Foucault, de Man, Althusser, Lacan and their comrades in academia, we could no longer pretend that we could study the stories that had taken us this far without rethinking the entire enterprise. Very simply put, we had to contend with theorists who, in prose that initially dazzled, baffled, and frustrated, sent us running to a bookstore to purchase Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and forced us to contend with questions regarding how literary texts signified. On the surface, their references to a vast array of literary and philosophical sources notwithstanding, ← 1 | 2 →these writers seemed to render the venerable studia humanitatas obsolete. If we committed ourselves to a graduate program in literature by the end of the Reagan presidency, the only real decisions we faced were what kind of critic each of us was going to become, and to what area of literary theory each of us would pledge primary allegiance.


X, 144
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
History Novel Realism Susan Sontag André Gorz
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 144 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Harvey (Volume editor) Patrice Nganang (Volume editor)

Robert Harvey is Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook where he chairs the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory. He has written extensively on Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Marcel Duchamp, and Michel Deguy and has translated Lyotard, Deguy, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Paul Ricœur. His most recent books are Witnessness: Beckett, Levi, Dante and the Foundations of Ethics, Les Écrits de Marguerite Duras, and De l’exception à la règle. Harvey is a major co-editor of the prestigious Pléiade edition of the complete works of Marguerite Duras. He served as Program Director at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris (2001–2007). Patrice Nganang, writer and scholar, is Associate Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Nganang has published collections of poetry: elobi and L’apologie du vandale; novels: La Saison des prunes, Temps de chien, and La Joie de vivre, which constitute a cycle depicting city life, Mont plaisant and La Saison des prunes, a cycle about wars from a Cameroonian point of view; and short novellas: L’Invention du beau regard and La Chanson du joggeur. His publications also include three collections of essays: La Principe dissident, Manifeste d’une nouvelle littérature africaine: Pour une écriture preemptive and Contre Biya: Procès d’un tyran. In addition, his columns appear regularly in Cameroonian and international newspapers such as Jeune Afrique and Le Monde. His novel Mont plaisant is scheduled to appear in English.


Title: Realism and Its Vicissitudes