The Law of Experiential Psychology. Pitaval as Literature of Social Milieu and the Law Court between 1750 and 1850
Gayot de Pitaval’s collection of legal cases, begun in 1734 and continued over a decade, represents a paradigmatic type of attempt to fictionalize legal proceedings. The project’s objective is to analyze this tradition of so-called Pitaval-literature with a view to narrative patterns of explanation for offences and crimes committed. The project lays a special focus on the emphasis placed on a person’s inner disposition as indicative of their motive in both narrative texts and criminal records and debates. The PIs thus follow the transition of originally psychological semiotics into both legal practice and theory and try to provide an explanation of the transformation of rhetorical commonplaces from character representation towards a psychological empiric. They place another main emphasis on ‘embarrassing’ legal cases. Such cases seem more promising for this specific analysis than proceedings in private or civil law, which tend to disappear gradually from Pitaval’s collection. The project therefore belongs to project cluster A, as the narratives at hand have the law, court proceedings and the administration of justice as their main subject. At the same time, one has to consider not only the fictionalization of legal precedents, but also the reciprocal influence on literary production and the development of the novel on the one hand and contemporary debates on the codification and modernization of criminal law on the other.
Most scholars agree that the Pitaval collection constitutes an important historical moment in the genesis of modern crime literature. Accordingly, there are multifarious studies on the influence the original causes célèbres had on works in the European and American literary tradition. However, these studies tend to focus less on the specific characteristics of these literary texts than on their depiction of judicial and legal practice as well as the historically fluent nexus between fact and fiction. These court cases constitute material to integrate and transform in correspondence with the concerns of the anthropological novel. The material’s facticity is therefore of crucial importance, especially considering a reader’s inference. In order to achieve coherence – in both composing and receiving a text – inference is by definition indispensable, but at the same time, it tends to be too dominant when it comes to crime narratives. Thus, more recent research in law and literary studies has also demonstrated that there is a tendency to overemphasize coherence for trials and interrogations. Moreover, a new trend in narratology, psychonarratology, based on the tradition of the philosophy of mind, places a special analytical focus on the relationship between reader and narrator and their ‘interaction’ in order to gain new insight into our practices of deduction.
The dramatic power inherent in the Pitaval collection results primarily from the conflict between the law and justice. At a time of transition towards a new understanding of modern law in the wake of codification and positive legislation, the legal and historical development of conflicts between law and ethics deserves special attention. The literary texts at hand show a very fine understanding of more often than not traumatic experiences of victims and perpetrators, that are enforced through the concomitant creation of the police and increasing ignorance of class privileges in court. The religious notion of guilt and the aristocratic notion of honour fade into the background in favour of new processes of objective investigation into questions of motive and sanity. Thus, the Pitaval proves a perfect point of departure to show a connection between a new literature focused on human nature around 1800 and the development of one of the most successful sub-genres of the novel, the crime novel. The project traces this immediate transformation of documentary sources and hotly disputed normative debates into a literary genre, which claims moral improvement and the promotion of justice for itself, yet clearly prioritizes crime’s potential for entertainment. Such conflicts are not the last reason for the dramatic nature of the Pitaval collection.