Rather than outline Josipovici's argument, which Ellis Sharp has done already with impressive speed and accuracy, I want to pick up on what interested me in particular. Ellis mentions it:
Josipovici then went on to talk about genre. A genre is like a family – you take it for granted. You feel comfortable there. Things are familiar and comforting. But confidence in a genre can wane in the same way that a family can come to seem deadening. He cited an example from Dr Johnson, who criticised Milton for responding to the death of a friend by writing a pastoral elegy. The generic form was false, not natural.He compared the popular genres of Johnson's time with the emerging novel which pretended to be something else: a true story. For this reason it became hugely popular, taking over as the dominant literary form. And no wonder. Here was an infinitely flexible vessel in which one could pour experience of the world. To become a famous writer, one no longer had to chew through the brittle paper of the literary law of genre. This was also the time of the French Revolution in which political and social emancipation spread throughout Europe, so it seems the practise of art travelled in parallel.
Freedom in the form of expression, however, has its problems. Josipovici provided the relevant anecdote via Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus: Haydn produced 100 symphonies while Beethoven wrote only nine. According to Mann's novel, this was due to the latter's "demonic subjectivity" taking over what had only a few years earlier been a tried and tested template. Haydn had simply filled in the form. But after Beethoven, composers were left to explore their subjectivity only, usually one not as demonic as Beethoven's. Writers were in the same position with the novel.
From this, the question that jumps out is: so what has changed since then? Well it's clear the novel in general has settled into a genre itself. Daily readers are assailed by injunctions not to dismiss - out of snobbery or pretension - the pleasures of genre fiction. Every time the Man Booker Prize comes around the opinion that literary fiction is itself a genre like any other is given an airing. It deserves no higher regard we're told. Yet, in the light of the novel's history, such assertions are evidently products of bad faith, usually shared even by those who feel inexplicably compelled to resist the peacemakers at the gates. The reason why they are made is due to the faith those who make these pronouncements have in the emancipatory qualities promised by the novel (and art in general). We're meant to respect and even celebrate the new confinement in the name of freedom!
For many, the familiar comforts of genre give more pleasure than the truth at whatever cost, and they object to being labelled philistine or as lacking judgement. This occurred in Josipovici's lecture when he expressed astonishment at the ecstatic reception given to Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. At least three attendees thought it unfair to scorn a novel recovered from a literal holocaust. But Josipovici never said she was a lesser writer than the modernists to which she was compared, only that Némirovsky, like 99% of contemporary authors, were and are simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what they were and are doing. The air of authority they adopt - that given to them by the form - betrays the freedom given by the breakdown of genre.
Josipovici concluded the lecture with customary evenhandness (which made the criticism of a sacred cow like Némirovsky all the more surprising and, in my opinion, necessary) by wondering aloud whether attachment to such freedom is pathological - part of the rootlessness propagated by the political changes over the last 220 years - or advantageous in allowing us to see something that would otherwise remain hidden. While no answer was supplied, he did end by saying this was a very modernist question. It's a question I'd like to highlight by summarising Maurice Blanchot's great short essay "The Gaze of Orpheus".