"Le regenerateur de la France": literary accounts of Napoleonic regeneration 1799-1805.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the term regeneration has both theological as well as physiological connotations. In its religious acceptation as we are told in the article "Regeneration" in L'Encyclopedie, it is defined as "l'acte par lequel on renait pour une nouvelle vie." This rebirth is mentioned in the New Testament, the article points out, both in the form of "spiritual birth at the time of baptism," as well as in the renewal that will follow the Second Coming or, what the article identifies as "la resurrection generale."
The second acceptation of the word pertains to the properties of renewal that had been observed in the healing of scars or ulcers. The naturalist Charles Bonnet (1720-1793) defines regeneration as "la simple evolution de parties preexistantes, qui en se developpant, remplacent celles qui ont ete retranchees ou que des parties ont detruites" (5). In this case, Bonnet is also referring to the regenerative properties of such organisms as worms, salamanders, and most notably the fresh water hydra, all of which were known for being capable of regrowing severed limbs. In the case of the hydra, also known as the polyp, Abraham Trembley (1710-1784) had discovered that this organism was an animal with extraordinary regenerative powers, since when it was cut in several pieces each piece was then able to develop into an individual polyp. Trembley cast the story of the humble polyp in terms of an organism with a hitherto unknown capacity for resurrection after its seeming destruction, describing it, in an article in Les Memoires de l'Academie des Sciences, as "the Phoenix who is reborn from its ashes." (2)
Whereas throughout most of the eighteenth century, regeneration was only part of the theological and medical lexicon, by the time of the Revolution of 1789, as Antoine de Baecque has shown in his Le Corps del'Histoire, the term was extended in use to describe "rebirth in all its physical, moral, and, in particular, political forms" (165). Outside of the natural sciences the term regeneration was widely used in a great variety of works dealing with social or political issues. (3) It is not surprising that as thinkers at this time of revolutionary upheaval attempted to describe the movement from the Ancien Regime to the new order -- or as Baecque puts it as they attempted "to place order upon a moment of rupture" (Corps de l'Histoire, 189) -- that they reached for the term regeneration. As Mona Ozouf remarks in her article "Regeneration" in Le Dictionnaire critique de la Revolution francaise, the term was taken up by many, regardless of their political affiliation. She writes that the term "with its extraordinary charge of energy" emerges as a leitmotif in the veritable wave of pamphlets, tracts and brochures that were published as early as the convening of the Etats Generaux (373).
In the early stages of the Revolution, as Ozouf points out, the term, at first used "with a genitive that added to its freight but softened its meaning" ("Regeneration" 373) in such phrases as the "regeneration of the administration, of public order, of the State, of France," eventually was used on its own, and as la regeneration it became "a limitless program," which was "at once physical, political, moral and social" and "aimed for nothing less than the creation of a new people" (373). Bolder than the concept of reform, regeneration with its links to both spiritual and physical renewal became a moral imperative of the revolutionary era that sought to reshape and re-educate its citizens. Ozouf argues that "during the revolutionary decade a thousand institutions and creations converged on the notion of regeneration" (376). She sees this "dream" which became "more than a dream" (376) as being at the root of Revolution-era renewal projects which aimed at reconfiguring daily life. Whether in the form of refashioning French territory by drawing up new departments, recasting time by creating a Revolutionary calendar, renewing civic feeling by establishing new festivals or rebaptising public spaces by altering place names, regeneration acted as the binding principle. Ozouf credits this ideal with "uniting men thrown into disarray by the vicissitudes of the time" and concludes: "Ce qui pretend nouer ces institutions en une gerbe unique et donner le ton de la Revolution -- ce sera vrai bien apres Thermidor -- c'est le projet de la regeneration" (376). A good example of the power and prevalence of the ideal of regeneration is found in an engraving from the period, depicting "une fete revolutionnaire" taking place on August 10, 1793, which shows a "Fontaine de Regeneration," which symbolically had been built on the ruins of the Bastille. The fountain was in the form of a giant statue of Isis -- a deity who in Hellenistic times was associated with myths of resurrection -- and what was described as "le flot purificateur" ran from the statue's breasts in order to quench the thirst of the representatives of the Convention who had just ratified the new Constitution. (4)
Le Neologiste francais, ou vocabulaire portatif des mots les plus nouveaux (1796) suggests, that in the immediate post-Revolutionary period and in the wake of revolutionary renewal projects, the term regeneration had been "rabache jusqu'a satiete" (Baecque, Le Corps de l'Histoire 168). And yet, the term and the imagery related to it, is still very much in evidence in Consulat era texts concerning the most notable political figure of the post-Revolutionary period, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose rise to power a decade after the events of 1789 ushered in a political class with its own aspirations for national renewal. Napoleon, who in retrospect, seems to have perceived himself as an agent for what he called "a universal regeneration which Nature herself demanded" (5) can be linked to images of regeneration immediately after "la revolution du 18 brumaire" (6) which first brought him to political power.
Clearly, for some, his advent was a turning point in the seemingly uncontrollable flow of events that had overburdened and fatigued the nation since 1789. In his Tableau politique de la France regeneree (1800), Bonnet de Treyches compares Bonaparte to that quintessential symbol of regeneration, by describing the new Consul as a phoenix rising from the ashes left behind by the Revolution's holocaust. Bonnet de Treyches predicts that, "on the ruins of anarchy" a new structure would be constructed, that would bring prosperity and stability to the nation. Having finally liquidated "ce fleau destructeur de la guerre qui epuise l'Europe et afflige l'humanite." He predicts that this "revolution sublime" (7), as well as this "nouveau gouvernement regenerateur" (15), will make farmland fertile once more and reenergize public administration. He also claims that what he calls "des canaux salutaires" will spread both "fertility and abundance" throughout the Empire (101). Clearly identifying Bonaparte with a force of regeneration capable of reanimating, resuscitating, reviving, rekindling, as well as generating countless miracles, Bonnet de Treyches writes of the new regime:
Elle ouvrira toutes les sources de la felicite publique, ranimera l'esprit public, vivifiera le commerce, enflammera tous les coeurs de l'amour sacre de la patrie, et enfantera des prodiges. (7)
In another work that predicts the renewal of riches that would come under a Napoleonic reign, Compiegne de Mouton, in his poem L'Accomplissement des predictions ou les Destinies de Bonaparte (1801), writes that the advent of this "nouvel Alcide" means that a nation that had seen itself condemned to sterility and decay would flourish again:
Tout deviendra fertile, Tout regenerera; Par un travail utile chacun prosperera; Et l'on verra que l'ancienne faite reparaitra.
In at least one case, these predictions of regeneration carry over into the domain of demographics, Doctor Louis Robert, sees "l'heureuse revolution du 18 brumaire" (10) as the beginning of a regenerative process for the French population. In his De l'influence de la Revolution Francaise sur la population (1802), Robert asserts that the nation could expect great benefits under the leadership of "le heros qui gouverne la France" (14). Whereas, under a despotic form of government man becomes withered and degraded, Bonaparte's rise to power will set free rejuvenating forces which are comparable only to a Fountain of Youth. Robert explains that liberty which is now flowing over each citizen -- "[Elle] le retrempe et le rajeunit" (11) -- will bring about the birth of "un peuple nouveau" (89).
Dr. Robert transports us to "la chaumiere du pauvre" where a virtuous "pere de famille, le bon Anselme" assembles his children around him to tell them how past injustices have been made right in the regenerated France (Robert 90). Robert goes on to describe a rekindled fervor for procreation brought on when the good people of France, unleashed from the bonds of despotism, taste the aphrodisiac of liberty. After an exhilarating patriotic celebration, the people of the countryside find that their previously dormant "principes generateurs" had been reborn, turning them into another form of "nouvel Alcide":
Un nouveau principe de vie rallume chez lui [Anselme] des feux mal eteints; il prouve qu'il est encore homme, et Phebe n'a pas fini sa neuvieme course, que le ciel lui envoie un nouvel appui dans sa vieillesse. Ce langage et ce nouvel acte de vigueur sont les memes chez tout le peuple des campagnes au retour d'une fete nationale ou l'agitation des danses, le son des instrumens, l'exercice des jeux publics, le delassement des travaux, une boisson abondante et spiritueuse, des repas fraternels, lui ont tour a tour enflamme l'imagination, fait sentir et developper l'aiguillon de nouveau principes generateurs [...]. De retour de ces fetes champetres et republicaines, ces hommes electrises, et tout ivres d'ardeur, refuseront-ils a la nature ce qu'elle demande et n'obtient que d'un coeur joyeux et content ... Non: dans ces heureuses circonstances, tout Francais est un Hercule, tant est grande l'influence de l'esprit de liberte sur la population! (Robert 91-93)
In several other works the figure of Napoleon actually takes on even greater powers in his role as the great regenerator of France. An apologue, which highlights these powers, is told in a tale by the prolific popular novelist Antoine Rosny. The very title of this work tells of the rise and fall of empires, as well as the birth, death and resurrection of its protagonist -- a coin. The work entitled, Histoire secrete d'un ecu de six livres transforme en une piece de cinq francs: contenant sa naissance et son entree dans le monde, sous Louis XIV; ses aventures sous Louis XV et sous Louis XVI; ses malheurs et sa proscription sous le regne de la terreur; son emigration et son enterrement sous Robespierre; sa resurrection et sa metamorphose sous le Consulat de Bonaparte, was published in 1804, and tells the story, as the title makes clear, of a coin that not only is a witness to the history of a tumultuous century where it passes through the hands of characters from all levels of French society, but also sings the praises of "le Heros regenerateur" (153). After going through many adventures that take our ecu from Louis XIV's court to the Revolutionary era, the author describes a period of social chaos which leads to the protagonist being buried in a tomb by a weak and pusillanimous old man who, we are told, "creusa un trou dans son jardin, m'enterra au pied d'un arbre, non sans repandre une larme sur ma tombe" (123), in the hopes that after the deluge that was raging around him had dissipated they might be reunited. During the Directory, the old man's servant unearths our coin-hero after his master's death. However, this is not the resurrection of which the title speaks. This comes with the rise of Napoleon, when "le genie tutelaire de la France ne tolerait point un partage inegal" and ordered that new coins be struck from old ones "dans la refonte generale" (153). The narrator admits his dismay at losing his original form, but is quickly consoled upon learning that he would in fact bear "l'effigie du Heros regenerateur" (153).
The novel ends with an ode to regeneration, which describes the happy transition that can be made when the citizens of a society cast off the customs and guiding principles of the past and allow themselves to be reborn. The coin, after what could have been his complete destruction, realizes that he has not met his end, but rather, with his identity intact and having successfully bridged the gulf between past and present, he has continued the cycle of life to be reborn for a greater glory.
Je fus donc retire du commerce, conduit a la Monnaie, pese, fondu, frappe de nouveau; et je reparus peu de tems apres sous une forme nouvelle. Dans le premier moment, tenant encore a mes vieilles habitudes, je ne renoncai qu'a regret aux premiers principes qui avaient nourri mon enfance: mais bientot je me consolai de cette metamorphose, en songeant que j'etais devenu un temoin muet de la reconnaissance nationale. Je le demande: est-ce perdre la vie que de renaitre pour la gloire? (153-54)
Napoleon's portrayal as both a Messianic as well as an apocalyptic figure is a common image in works written during the Romantic era, after the Emperor's fall. (7) But, already in the earliest years of Napoleon's reign we find images of a Christ-like Bonaparte acting as a vehicle of regeneration. In one poem -- Camusat's "L'Hospice de Jafa" -- which was read "a la distribution des prix du Lycee Bonaparte" we find just such a portrayal of Bonaparte giving life where there is none. In the poem a young child whose parents have just died of the same illness to which she too is about to succumb "demande la vie un seconde fois." It is at that precise moment that Bonaparte, "vainqueur" and "maitre" appears on his chariot accompanied by both Glory and Humanity who lead him to the hospice "ce tombeau des vivans" where he brings only light and renewed life.
We also have at least one example of Napoleon cast in the role of the God of the Last Judgment, deciding the fate of the Just and the sinners, in a work entitled Le Songe merveilleux, ou l'Apparition du fantome royal, mon entretien avec les ombres sur la constitution nouvelle, leur opinion sur le grand vinqueur [sic] de l'Italie. The narrator of this work has descended into the nether world, where he sees a group -- which includes Louis Capet -- discussing the French Revolution. Suddenly, an "extraordinary symphony of instruments" interrupts the debate.
Tous les regards se tournent du cote ou l'on entendait ses accens dedies a la concorde. Un nuage s'ouvre, & decouvre l'image d'un jeune Heros, ombrage de lauriers & d'oliviers. Des ombres l'escortent en foule: elles portent ces inscriptions sur l'une desquelles on lit[...] Il sauvera la France. (Le Vasseur 6)
Then this hero, whom we are told vanquished the tyrants of Italy and Egypt calms "les ombres" who flee upon seeing him. He calls to them:
Arretez [...] je ne suis pas venu pour epouvanter personne; que les mechans seuls fremissent, parce qu'ils se perdront eux-memes. Mais que les hommes probes de toutes les opinions se rassurent. (7)
Finally, one of the most striking texts in which Napoleon is endowed with regenerative powers, is a 1799 poem, Lamontagne's Mon retour a la vie, ou le Cri de l'innocence opprimee, Ode a Napoleon Bonaparte, premier consul. The poem begins with its narrator descending towards the river of death. His description is peppered with images that equate the nether world with the tyranny of the Ancien Regime:
J'etois sous le ciseau de l'inflexible Parque; Deja je descendais dans ce noir souterrain, La bastille du genre humain; J'entrevoyais les morts et leur pale monarque. (1)
As he is about to embark on his final journey, he tells his reader that while on earth he suffered first chains and then exile at the hands of "les pervers" who triumphed during the course of the Revolution. Despite these past tribulations however, he still grieves at the thought of leaving behind his native land. But, just as the narrator is about to set foot in the vessel that was to carry him across the river of death a figure, which we quickly identify as Napoleon appears, in order to perform a miraculous act of resurrection:
Soudain a mes regards surpris, S'offre, de Jupiter, le messager fidelle; De la main d'Atropos arrachant le ciseau, Sous mes pieds chancelants il ferme le tombeau. [...] Je renais, un charme vainqueur Rappelle dans mon sein mon ame fugitive. Quel est ce jeune dieu qui marche a mon cote? (4)
This "young god," who has just saved the narrator from the grave reassures him:
De tes regrets suspends le cours, A tes regards encor vois l'avenir sourire. Contemple des Francais le Heros bien aime; Non moins tendre que fier, par la gloire enflammee, Le coeur de ce grand homme, ou la vertu respire, Est un azile sur ouvert a l'opprime. (5)
Thus, in these texts Napoleon is represented as the God of the Last Judgment whose arrival on the French political stage would bring about the resurrection of French society and retribution for the Just, who had until then suffered. He is represented as the agent of the Second Coming -- la Regeneration -- a cataclysmic event "in which the old world is replaced by a new and better world" (Abrams 41).
The Apocalypse is a major moment in Christian historiography, characterized not only by "an abrupt end to the present world order" (Abrams 38), but also by this world's replacement with a new and perfected incarnation. This "revolution of the globe," whether in its form in Jewish prophecies, such as in Isaiah or Daniel, or in a form adapted to Christian Messianism in the Book of Revelation, presents the story of a fierce but cleansing destruction. In both cases, a revolution occurs in which a new world is brought into being. In the case of the New Testament's Book of Revelation after a temporary time of peace -- the Millennium -- a "universal resurrection and Last Judgment [will occur] after which the old heaven and earth, their function in the divine plot accomplished, will pass away, to be replaced by a new heaven and earth and by a new Jerusalem which will reconstitute for those who merit it, the conditions of the lost Eden (40).
It is obvious, then, why this conception of regeneration that conflates the possibility of rebirth with the annihilation of the past, resonated so well in the post-Revolutionary age of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century France. In the early years of the Revolution images of "le Francais regenere," "l'homme nouveau," and "le monde nouveau" which are adopted almost universally by the different factions of the Revolutionary period, act as a foil for the degenerating, decadent and worn out world of the Ancien Regime's "barbarie feodale" (Baecque 193). The call for regeneration was being directly linked to an uncom-promising rejection of a past from which nothing could be salvaged by revolutionary leaders eager to reconstruct a new nation. The New France could not have its roots in the practices of the Ancien Regime. Thus, the concept of regeneration becomes, in Antoine de Baecque's words "une veritable defense et illustration de la fracture historique de 1789," for a generation which valued "radical innovations" over continuity (Baecque, "L'Homme nouveau est arrive" 193-94). In this sense regeneration coincides well with a certain vision of revolution as a complete break with the past.
But, at the same time there is an aspect of regeneration in its Revolutionary-era political and social acceptation which is very much connected with the cyclical connotation of revolution, where revolution implies a "return to a previous state" (Ozouf 416). In her article "Revolution" in Le Dictionnaire critique de la Revolution francaise, Mona Ozouf describes the tension felt by many revo-lutionary-period thinkers as they related their projects of regeneration in the future, to past realities. Integral to a certain cyclical conception of revolution is the idea that with revolution would come a restoration of the past or a renewal of ties with a distant past. Ozouf argues that "the first effect of the great spectacle [of the Revolution] was to discredit the idea that the Revolution might restore a previous social order. She continues:
Reste sans doute le prestige puissant du sentiment de renouer; il ne s'agit plus pourtant de renouer avec l'anterieur mais avec le fondamental. La Revolution francaise vit de cette idee forte que seul l'initial fonde. Si ce qu'on retablit, ce sont les droits de l'homme, et si ceux-ci ont ete bafoues dans l'histoire, on decouronne du meme coup tous les antecedents historiques. Loin de renouer la chaine des temps, on sort de l'histoire pour l'appareillage collectif et exaltant vers une terre nouvelle, un commencement absolu. (420)
Clearly, even this "absolute beginning" in a "new world" is not an uncompromising break with the past, but rather it is invested in what Antoine de Baecque qualifies as a "futur instantane, en osmose avec un passe mythifie" ("L'Homme nouveau" 196-97). Of course this notion of revolution as a means of restoring a mythical past, where, as I. Bernard Cohen writes, "progress consists of turning back the clock or calendar" as a reaction to the current degenerated state of the world, can be traced back in Western thought to the hopes of recovering the paradise lost since the time of the Fall (64). This hope for a "new world" as Ozouf calls it, or a "new Eden" is, like the myth of a return to a Golden Age, a desire to resurrect the fundamental purity of human society which has been corrupted and altered. It is, in the end, the desire to "restore the order of the world at the end of its cycle" (Delaporte 8) by reinstating a "primordial tradition that History had weighed down with debris" (19).
In the texts we have examined, Napoleon is consistently presented as a vehicle of hope, a figure whose regenerating force will create just such a new and better world. And yet, whether regeneration was conceived of as a complete break with or a restoration of the past, it is a moment, which is itself, only possible after a catastrophic and annihilating revolution. There is an undeniable dark side to regeneration that is not present in these texts dealing with "le heros regenerateur," but that is quite evident in some of the major literary works of the post-Revolutionary era. Madame de Stael's Delphine (1802), Etienne de Senancour's Oberman (1804), and Rene de Chateaubriand's Rene (1802) -- whose eponymous hero's very name is inscribed with the concept of rebirth -- all offer examples of characters in an illusory quest for regeneration in the wake of revolution.
Chateaubriand wrote, that his generation, who had seen "the face of the earth renewed," had been cast aside by history and was therefore, he claimed, a "lost generation" (154). This generation of writers, who was the last to have direct contact with the Ancien Regime and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, watched the political, religious, social and intellectual structures of that world collapse. It was a generation whose constituents were not only "deeply marked by the Revolution and obliged to spend much of their adult lives coping with its consequences," but after this decisive and catastrophic experience, this was a generation whose greatest thinkers' "main intellectual concern was to find their bearings in a world torn apart by the Revolution" (Beecher 71). The concept of regeneration that was so prevalent during the Revolution and that continued in the immediate post-Revolutionary era to offer a model of continuity after catastrophic change remained an unfulfilled dream in the fictional worlds of Rene, Delphine, and Oberman.
Perhaps, the most compelling example of the catastrophic form of literary regeneration is found in a much less widely read work from the same period. In the context of the texts we have examined which deal with Napoleon as a figure of regeneration, Jean Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's apocalyptic prose poem, Le Dernier homme, offers the most thorough exploration of regeneration, in all senses of the term. Grainville (1746-1805) was a member of the clergy who, during the course of the Revolution took the oath upholding the civil constitution and later married a distant cousin with whom he maintained, what one commentator labeled as only the "simulacre d'union conjugale" in order to avoid the guillotine (Grippen 6). His poem was completed in 1805, shortly before the author, who was suffering from what was described as "une maladie melancholique," threw himself into the Somme. It was published posthumously, some speculate, with the help of his relative Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Grippen 7).
Le Dernier homme tells the story of Omegare, described throughout the poem alternately as the "new Adam" and "the last man," who has been born into a world whose human population has become sterile. A prophecy announces that Omegare will become "the father of a new race" (1:54) who will save this species on the brink of extinction. Initially, the poem seems to be about Omegare's epic struggle to find the sole fertile female left on the barren earth about whom he has been told in a prophecy. When he finds this "new Eve," Syderie, he is again told that they will give birth to a new race that will revitalize the waning earth. And yet, just as he is about to marry this new Eve who lives in the only remaining human settlement in the New World -- Ville du Soleil -- he learns that they must not consummate their marriage because, if they reproduce, their offspring would be "une race infame" (2: 75), described as sitting around "des tables ensanglantees, couvertes des membres de leurs freres, dont ils se disputoient les lambeaux palpitans qu'il devoroient" (2: 75). In the end, Omegare leaves Syderie, an act that precipitates the advent of the Day of Judgment.
Many elements in the poem parallel those found in the texts on Napoleon from the same period. Just as Napoleon brought about "la revolution du 18 brumaire" and established "un nouveau gouvernement regenerateur," in Omegare, we have a figure that will also be the catalyst for "une nouvelle revolution des siecles" (1: 23). Like Napoleon, Omegare's "regeneration of the human species" is identified as a "revolution that will change the face of the earth" (1: 171).
In the texts discussed earlier, post-Revolutionary France was portrayed as sterile and drained of its life force. It was a place where farmland was unproductive and barren. Physiologically Frenchmen were described as withered and degraded. In these texts Napoleon represents a force that would bring about rejuvenation and a man who would re-awaken what Dr. Robert called the nation's "principes generateurs."
Grainville's Omegare is cast in a similar light. In Le Dernier homme we are told that at the time of this last man's birth, "la France ainsi que l'Europe n'etoit plus qu'une vaste solitude" (1: 33) Moreover, the text continues:
L'hymen depuis vingt ans n'etoit plus fecond. Les hommes avancant tristement vers le terme de leur course, sans etre suivis d'une jeune posterite qui dut les remplacer, pensoient que la terre alloit perdre en eux ses derniers habitans. (1: 35)
The earth's climate was becoming progressively colder, forcing the human population to continually move south in search of fertile land. Grainville writes: "Les hommes tomberent dans le decouragement en voyant des champs baignes de leurs sueurs refuser de produire la ronce sterile" (1: 97). With Omegare's birth, though, comes the promise of renewal. He is told: "Le ciel te destine a regenerer la terre" (1: 44). From the time of his birth, it is foretold that this last descendant of the Kings of France (1:171) would reign over a time during which "le genre humain et la terre seroient regeneres" (1: 60). The prophecy is made that: "[La terre] se ranimeroit aux feux nouveaux du soleil, elle se depouilleroit des vetemens de sa vieillesse pour reprendre sa robe brillante du printemps. Des enfans nombreux sortiroient du genre humain rajeuni ..." (1: 42).
In the texts we examined earlier, Napoleon is consistently presented as a vehicle of hope, a figure whose regenerating force will create a new and better world. In Grainville, however, we have an example of an annihilating form of regeneration, which overshadows any dream of returning to the beginning of all things, the Golden Age. Grainville's Dernier homme is far from being a story of a revolution that brings about societal renewal, for in the end, all human attempts towards regeneration are in vain. Omegare, abandons his attempts to bring about the rebirth of the human race. Endeavors by others in the poem to revitalize agriculture are unsuccessful. Even another source of possible regeneration -- a potion that brings about renewed youth and immortality --dries up. (8)
Moreover, Grainville's poem offers an explicit reference to Napoleon's brand of regeneration. This passage, which occurs as the author is describing the final moments of the earth, make clear that Grainville does not hold out hope for the type of political and social regeneration offered by "le Regenerateur de la France." As Omegare arrives in Paris, he finds the city in complete ruins: "Ce lieu n'est qu'un desert, un vaste champ de poussiere, le sejour de la mort et du silence" (2: 85). While walking through the rubble he finds a statue, which miraculously has remained intact while "even the ruins" of more durable monuments had vanished (2: 86). As he begins to contemplate it he realizes that it "represents a former sovereign of the French" (2: 86).
The base of the statue is covered with inscriptions left behind by several travelers that had over the centuries passed by and seen the statue. One passer-by who had left his native Africa in order to visit Europe, writes to say that he restored the pedestal "that time had degraded" (2: 86). Another traveler from Lima that had found the statue knocked down and raised it up. And the last inscription tells of a sculptor "born on the banks of the Ganges" who spent two months "in this desert" restoring the entire monument (2: 87). Omegare wonders about the identity of "this hero" in whose honor the statue was erected, this man who he believes must have been "quite dear to posterity," considering that all these "foreigners who passed through here" (2: 87). He exclaims:
Quoi! tant de siecles ecoules, tant de revolutions qui firent oublier jusqu'aux noms des empires qui brillerent sur la terre, n'ont pas eu le pouvoir d'affoiblir l'interet que ce prince inspira! (2: 87)
He deciphers the almost completely erased letters and learns "that this great man was named Napoleon I." Omegare recognizes this name as being one of the monarchs who were among his ancestors. He then offers this respectful eulogy:
O mon pere! S'il est vrai que les manes des morts soient consolees par les hommages qui leur sont accordes sur la terre, recois encore ce tribut de l'amour et du respect des hommes; il sera le dernier, mais ton nom ne pouvoit pas vivre plus loin dans la memoire. En disant ces mots, il arrose de ses pleurs la statue de ce grand homme. (2: 88)
Napoleon, "le Heros regenerateur," holds a special place in Grainville's text. As the only historical figure to be mentioned by name in this tale of regeneration, written at the beginning of the Consulat. But ultimately, this poem, which explores all aspects of regeneration, is ostensibly about an annihilating form of la Regeneration. In Le Dernier homme, the concept of secular and social regeneration is shattered. This poem, which "represents a powerfully suggestive reaction to the contemporary philosophical doctrines of progress and the inevitable perfectibility of mankind" (Majewski 114), offers a baffling message that combines the dream of regeneration with the doom of total extinction. Despite such hopeful readings of this poem as Jules Michelet's, who saw it as an ode to the eternal power of love (21:507), many critics have felt that Grainville's brand of regeneration lacked any notion of spiritual rebirth. Rather, Grainville emphasizes the suffering of this innocent hero and heroine who unlike Adam and Eve had committed no sin, "apart from existing as members of a fallen race" (Alkon 181). As one nineteenth-century commentator wrote of Grainville: "Il est facheux, selon nous, qu'il ait entierement perdu de vue la regeneration religieuse de l'homme par le redempteur" (Bonneville 31).
In this poem obeying God's precept to be fruitful and multiply is turned into a sin against God. In the end, when the last day has come and the dead have risen and are walking the earth, as the forces of nature are unleashed, we are left not with the anticipation of rebirth and renewal but rather with total extinction. Grainville writes:
Tout le ciel attendoit avec impatience ce grand evenement; ses voutes retentissent aussi-tot de cris d'allegresse. Le regne du temps est fini, les siecles eternels vont commencer; mais au meme moment, les enfers jettent des cris de rage, le soleil et les etoiles s'eteignent. La sombre nuit du chaos couvre la terre, il sort des montagnes, des rochers et des cavernes de sons plaintifs, la nature gemit. On entend dans l'air une voix lugubre qui s'ecrie: "Le genre humain est mort."(2: 167)
This work which was contemporary with those which cast Napoleon and the birth of the Napoleonic era as a great moment of regeneration places Napoleon's regeneration in a series of eventually inconsequential "revolutions" in which the hoped-for new world never fully materializes. And in which the emphasis is placed on the cataclysmic results of revolution.
In his Histoire du dix-neuvieme siecle (1872-1874), which was completed in the final years of his life, Michelet reflects back on the year of his own birth -- 1798. Michelet describes the years upon which this study has focused as a period during which "le monde s'acheminait sur la pente du neant" (506). He writes that the greatest nations of the world "let out a great cry of desolation" (511), in this era of "infinite sadness" caused by the "immensity of ruins, the loss of so many illusions, and the mourning for so many victims [... and] principles" (506). France, in particular, which should have been the site of a great social renaissance, reacted to the "dechirements" of contemporary events with what Michelet calls "un appel a la mort, l'anatheme a la vie, a la fecondite, un appel a la fin prochaine" (511). Michelet goes on to single out two works that he thinks are emblematic of that era and its fears. The first was Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. The second work is Grainville's Le Dernier homme -- begun, as Michelet points out, in 1798 -- of which the historian writes:
De tous les livres d'alors, le sien est le plus historique, en ce sens qu'il donne avec une verite profonde, l'ame meme du temps, sa souffrance, sa sombre pensee. Cette pensee [...] n'est autre que la faim et la famine, la terreur que produisit vers la fin du dix-huitieme siecle l'apparent epuisement de la terre. Cette terreur, plus forte que celle des echafauds de 93, se retrouve a chaque ligne de l'histoire de ces temps. (507)
The concept of regeneration clearly articulates more than the optimistic expectation of renewal in the person of Napoleon. This powerful concept that had such a strong presence in the Revolutionary era, continues in the wake of that cataclysmic moment of historical rupture to encapsulate both the fears and hopes of a generation. Regeneration both as the representation of rebirth and of the extinction of the past continued into the Napoleonic era to be a potent image in the literary construction of a post-Revolutionary world.
Department of Modern Languages Towson University 8000 York RD Towson, MD 21252-0001
(1) Tulard, Napoleon ou le mythe du sauveur 446.
(2) Trembley, 33. Charles Bonnet, who saw Trembley's discoveries of polyp regeneration as a link between animal and plant life in his construction of a chain of being, formulated his own elaborate and eccentric theory of regeneration, which he dubbed palingenesie. This theory goes beyond focusing on the ability of a single organism to be renewed, to providing a scheme that envisages the periodic rebirth of the entire natural world. Palingenesis (from the Greek term meaning new birth) designates at once a birth and a rebirth and in all its connotations it is the vehicle for renewal after apparent destruction. Originally used in the context of the Stoic belief in the "periodic eternal return of the same events" (see Lalande), the term -- "a commonplace in Hermetic texts" -- also has its roots in alchemy. (See Jacques Marx, 87.) It &scribes the practice of resurrecting a deceased plant or animal by heating its ashes which Jaucourt's article "Palingenesie" in L'Encyclopedie characterizes as "le secret pour ramener des choses detruites a leur premier etat."
(3) The amount of written material addressing the issue of regeneration is staggering. Here is just a brief and far-from-exhaustive list that gives an idea of the variety of texts which invoke the term in their titles: Essai sur la regeneration physique, morale et politique des Juifs (abbe Gregoire, 1788);Microscope du Tiers Etats sur la regeneration prochaine de la nation par un citoyen, (1788); La Liberte ou la France regeneree, poeme (abbe Antoine de Cournand, 1789); Le Champs de Mars, ou la regeneration de la France ... (Hippolyte Pellet-Desbarreaux, 1789); Appel aux Francaises sur la regeneration des moeurs et necessite des femmes dans un gouvernement libre (1791); La France regeneree, piece episodique en vers ... (Publicola Chaussard, 1791); Opinion sur la regeneration des mours (Hyacinthe-Marcellin Borel, 1793); Principes regenerateurs du systeme social (J-N Billaud-Varenne, 1795); Revolution de la medecine, ou Regeneration de l'art de guerir (Le Beschu de la Bastay, 1799); Les Hommes nouveaux, ou solution du probleme, comment d'apres les principes poses dans la nouvelle regeneration politique peut-on, dans la pratique, operer, parmi les individus, une regeneration morale? (Vincenzo Dandolo, 1800); Tableau politique de la France regeneree (J B Bonnet de Treyches, 1800);Herologues, ou Chants des poetes -rois et l'homme renouvele, recit moral en vers, (N. Lemercier, 1804).
(4) Histoire de la population francaise, 3:17.
(5) Cited in Lasky, 481.
(6) Bonnet de Treyches 7.
(7) See Bowman, and Tulard.
(8) One character finds "le secret de prolonger les jours de l'homme et de rajeunir la vieillesse." (Grainville, 1:81) This part of the poem evokes the legend of the Fountain of Youth which was itself closely associated with the myth of the Garden of Eden and therefore conjures images both religious and allegoric of waters which bring about "a symbolic mode of spiritual regeneration" (Delumeau 177). For more on this see: Grainville 1: 81-92.
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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