Foucault suggests that the relationship between the two subjects is more complex than we often think.
In The Order of Things, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, Michel Foucault describes the birth around the turn of the nineteenth century of two new epistemological or linguistic forms, forms, he suggests, that his contemporaries have taken for granted. The first of these, which pervades all of the soft sciences, is history, here the name not only for the awareness that events and our experience of events occur in time but also for the peculiarly modern belief that a thing’s most fundamental truth can be revealed through an interrogation of the temporal processes by which it came to be. The second is literature, now in the emphatic sense of the term as it unfolds from Hölderlin to Mallarmé, Roussel, and Beckett, a mode of language concerned not with adequation to reality but with its own intransitive existence: “a silent, cautious deposition of the word upon the whiteness of a piece of paper, where it can possess neither sound nor interlocutor, where it has nothing to say but itself, nothing to do but shine in the brightness of its being.”
Foucault wants to show how we’ve moved away from an earlier moment guided by the rationalist ideal of clear and distinct ideas.
History and literature, then: two uniquely modern forms. Although expressed in the sometimes oracular language typical of his milieu, Foucault’s claim about the roughly coincident birth of these forms is not, I think, especially controversial. History was indeed “born” in the nineteenth century, not only in the grand sense that Foucault intends but also in the more prosaic sense that it was codified as a discipline almost simultaneously at the University of Berlin (1810) and the Sorbonne (1812), and very much in the wake of the French Revolution. And it was certainly present to the consciousness of the age. Literary critic and philosopher, Friedrich Schlegel, for example, could write in 1798 to his brother August that “I am disgusted by any theory that is not historical”; half a century later, Flaubert would write to the Goncourt brothers that “the historical sense dates from yesterday. And it is perhaps the best thing about the nineteenth century”; and Nietzsche’s warning in the second essay of the Untimely Meditations that “there is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of historical sense which injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people, or a culture” would hardly have seemed as urgent a century earlier.