*Polemical Essay



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Polemical Essay

Bernard Quémada (1980) noted that in the essay, the subject matter is treated through successive approaches, and generally by using methods or viewpoints that are put to a test. Marc Lits (1994) has pointed out that this idea of the confrontation of different approaches is an essential characteristic of the genre, more important and relevant than the notions of modesty or superficiality usually advanced. In considering the polemical essay, we are brought back to the analysis carried out by Dominique Maingueneau in Sémantique de la polémique (1983). Polemic constitutes a means for reinforcing its own enclosure by exposing itself to an imagined, threatening Other. Polemic, like other forms of the essay, would appear to operate in a discursive niche of confrontation, openness, and redefinition.
As Marc Angenot (1982) observed, polemic, like the pamphlet or the satire, presupposes the demonstration of a thesis and the refutation or disqualification of an opposing thesis. In this sense, polemical and other essay forms would appear to share common ground. If polemic commits itself, it is because the polemicist presupposes— whatever the gap separating the views at issue—that the opposing argument is underpinned by shared premises, on the basis of which it can be refuted. It is in this manner that polemic marks itself out from satirical prose. Satire deliberately denies a contrary view any rational basis. Although both satire and polemic, to varying degrees, imply a persuasive function and an aggressive function, the polemicist, however hostile he shows himself or herself to be, must technically be able to construct the antithesis, and rework his or her assertions in order to achieve the intended effect of rejection.
Among the many variations of the essay, the place successfully taken by the polemical essay is directly linked to the development of journalism. The work of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele on the Spectator is traditionally cited as the defining moment in the development, during the 18th century, of the essay as a periodical-based genre. When it became part of journalism, the essay became lighter, less philosophical and serious. The rapid growth of the press was henceforth to give many essayists an opportunity to express themselves in the political and satirical arenas. Taking France as an example, from the Third Republic to May 1968, and considering the Dreyfus affair on the way, a tradition of violent confrontations has been forged, with close links to the press. Among the outstanding French polemical writers, mention might be made of Henri de Rochefort, Émile Zola, Léon Daudet, Édouard Drumont, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Jean-Paul Sartre. But it must also be acknowledged that although current editorial pages have, to a certain extent, replaced the polemical essay, the genre has, additionally, experienced a certain loss of vitality. By going back to Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs (1927; The Treason of the Intellectuals), Marc Angenot has shown that here we may uncover what characterizes the existential position of the modern pamphleteer: a feeling of detachment with regard to a set of perverse and scandalous practices, in which resentment and twilight prophetism are combined. On a formal level, everything indicates the neutral objectivity typical of the cognitive essay. Perhaps this formal neutrality, for journalism, too, has replaced outright polemic.


Baskerville, Edward J., A Chronological Bibliography of Propaganda and Polemic Published in English Between 1553 and 1558, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979

Further Reading
Angenot, Marc, Contribution á la parole pamphlétaire: Typologie des discourse modernes, Paris: Payot, 1982
Barbey d’Aurevilly, Jules, Journalistes et polémistes, chroniqueurs et pamphlétaires, Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1968 (original edition, 1895)
Bertaut, Jules, Chroniqueurs et polémistes, Paris: Sansot, 1906
Billy, André, Les Écrivains de combat, Paris: Les OEuvres Représentatives, 1931
Boyce, Benjamin, The Polemic Cbaracter, 1640–1661: A Chapter in English Literary History, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955
Burgess, Glenn, “Protestant Polemic: The Leveller Pamphlets,” Parergon 11, no. 2 (1993):45–67
Corns, Thomas N., “Archetypal Mystification: Polemic and Reality in English Political Literature, 1640–1750,” Eighteenth-Century Life 7, no. 3 (1982):1–27
Corns, Thomas N., “The Literature of Controversy: Polemical Strategy from Milton to Junius,” Prose Studies 9, no. 2 (1986)
Daudet, Léon, Flammes: Polémiques et polémistes, Paris: Grasset, 1930
Dominique, Pierre, Les Polémistes français depuis 1789, Paris: La Colombe, 1962.
Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine, L’Énonciation de la subjectivité dans le langage, Paris: Colin, 1980
Lits, Marc, L’Essai, Brussels: Hatier, 1994
Maingueneau, Dominique, Sémantique de la polémique: Discours religieux et ruptures idéologiques au XVIIe siècle, Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme, 1983
Moore, Evelyn Knopp, Lessing’s Theory of Polemic (dissertation), Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990
Propaganda in England and France: Polemic, Art, and Literature, edited by James Leheny, Eighteenth-Century Life 7, no. 3 (1981)
Quémada, Bernard, Trésor de la langue française: Dictionnaire de la langue du XlXe et du XXe siècle (1789–1960), vol. 8, Paris: CNRS, 1980
Revel, Jean-François, Qu’est-ce que la polémique?, Paris: Pauvert, 1966
Thrash, Cheryl Haines, The Polemical Body in Seventeenth-Century Toleration Tracts (dissertation), Atlanta: Emory University, 1992
Watson, George, The Certainty of Literature: Essays in Polemic, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989

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