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Berthier, Philippe, ed. Barbey d'Aurevilly 17: Sur le sacre.

Berthier, Philippe, ed. Barbey d'Aurevilly 17: Sur le sacre. Paris: Revue des Lettres Modernes, 2002. Pp. 229. ISBN 2256910393.

This collection features eight insightful and in-depth essays on the function of the sacred in the fiction of Barbey d'Aurevilly. Each essay highlights a different conceptualization of the sacred in Barbey's work such as the role of the scapegoat as sacred and integral element to the community, and the textualization (and transformation) of religious rites and traditions and the sacred and sacrificial elements of the French Revolution in nineteenth-century texts. The broad range of works by Barbey includes the lesser known Ce qui ne meurt pas and Une Histoire sans nom, the widely read Les Diaboliques, as well as Barbey's lengthy collection of criticism, Les CEuvres et les hommes offering readers a complete exploration of his prose according to different hermeneutics of the sacred.

The volume reflects the scholarly dedication of Philippe Berthier who has edited the series on Barbey for the Revue des lettres modernes since 1982. Sur le sacre, like other recent studies in this series, presents various perspectives on a specific facet of Barbey's work that historically has received little critical attention. This collection, however, features a significantly larger quantity of contributing articles compared to earlier reviews which generally include fewer pieces on the proposed subject and more contributions in the general section entitled Melange. The result is a more cohesive investigation of the sacred in Barbey's fiction. Although the collection is especially useful to specialists on Barbey, scholars interested in theories of the sacred and in 19th and 20th century literary criticism will also find it of value.

Barbey's novels are largely inspired by his early experiences in Normandy, and reveal a tension between his rigid Catholic world view and the transgressive impulses of human nature. Berthier substantiates the merits of analyzing the sacred in the Aurevillian oeuvre by placing Barbey's ambiguous figuration of spirituality and transcendence in the context of our own ambivalent "civilization post-chretienne" (3).

In the first essay of Part I, "Sur le sacre" Marie Miguet-Ollagnier asserts that the sacred in Barbey's 1854 novel L'Ensorcelee refers not only to holy ritual but evokes the untouchable, the accursed, or taboo. She argues that this broader definition introduces three areas of the sacred in the text--"[il s'agit] d'une terre, d'une race, d'une religion" (22). Traditions of regional folklore parallel Catholic rites and customs and suggest that in Barbey's text, the moors and the ancient lineages of the region, with their own taboos and rituals, are as sacred as the Catholic cult.

Helene Celdran's insightful Girardian analysis of Barbey's novels, Une Vieille Maitresse, L'Ensorcelee, and Un Pretre marie demonstrates that mimetic crisis and violence form the "def de voute" (47) of Barbey's fictional universe. After a brief outline of Girard's theory, Celdran shows in each of the novels how the mimetic crisis functions to single out a scapegoat or "victime emissaire" (23) such as la Clotte or la Malgaigne as a means to deliver the community from unrest. Although she cautions the reader against a restrictive reading of the texts within Girard's model (or any model for that matter); she clearly emphasizes the value of a Girardian interpretation in order to better understand the prominent themes of violence and sacrifice in Barbey's novels. Because of its theoretical framework, Celdran's essay might be of interest to both specialists and generalists.

In the subsequent article, Gisele Seginger claims that Barbey's figuration of the sacred in his fiction is primarily a reaction to a century heavily influenced by positivism and progressivism. Seginger's assertion that Le Pretre marie resists the rationalism associated with post-revolutionary thought reinforces her claim that Barbey restores the sacred by transfiguring myth and sin (la faute[61]) in his narrative. (The priest, Sombreval reenacts original sin--by fathering Calixte and Neel's hubris leads him to believe that he can walk on water). The author suggests that Le Pretre marie is an apostasy a rebours. The novel's "ecriture conflictuelle" (74) is supported by the use of oxymoronic phrases such as "le sublime horrible" (67) and underscores not only the conflicted actions of its characters, but the transgressive and thereby sacred aspects of writing. Seginger's article segues well with Andrew McKeown's because both emphasize Barbey's manichean narrative and oxymoronic figures of speech.

McKeown's insicive investigation of ambiguity in Barbey's Les Diaboliques is not for Barbey scholars alone. McKeown asserts that the "confrontation" between the writer and the Catholic brings about the ritualization of the narrative. According to McKeown the text operates at two levels of sacred ritual "le culte et le recit" (84). To support his claim that ritual is evoked as cult practice and narrative practice, the author stresses that the narrative structure is repeated in all of the six stories. In addition, he alludes to the theater(s) of action in the stories--the salon, the closed room that designates a consecrated space, and its simulacra (e.g. the boudoir). This space is accessible only to members of the cult--the aristocrats in the story. Each tale is told by a "narrateur officiant" (89) who, in each of the Diaboliques begins with a conversation and then shifts from the social to the spiritual. This narrator--"hierophante" (88) is a mediator between God and the initiates. His voice is captivating and persuasive and reinforces the orality of Barbye's tales. These fictional "homelies" effect sustained ambiguity throughout the text that parallels the ritual celebration of passion and mystery in each story.

Ambiguity is also the focus of Andre Gamot's essay, only in the context of Une Histoire sans nom. He asserts, alluding to Girard, that the space of transcendence is also the "territoire de l'interdit" (111). For Barbey, this space, as suggested by his 1874 preface to Les Diaboliques is "ni diabolique, ni celeste, mais ... sans nom" (112). Gamot maintains that the fundamental ambiguity inherent in the sacred constitutes a matrix of oppositions (e.g. sacred vs. sacrilege, penitence vs. feigned penitence, presence vs. absence of God) that accounts for the tension throughout the narrative.

In "Profanation, Scenes/Cenes Bibliques et Imitation" Pascal Noir explores the paradoxes of Barbey's Catholicism as manifested in his narrative. In keeping with Barbey's oppositonal style to which the other authors refer as well, Noir suggests that Barbey's reversal of sacred topoi and biblical references is a blasphemization of the narrative (conversely McKeown shows the sacralization of the narrative; the two articles though, rather than contradict each other, reinforce the complexity of Barbey's Manichean world. Noir's sensitive reading of Barbey's texts enriches his argument that the sacred in the Aurevillian universe is always reversible and part of a complex architecture. To read Barbey he claims is to understand that literature is like Penelope's travail; the crafting of a mythic text from many different and opposing threads.

Pascale Auraix-Jonchiere investigates the allegorical representation of pity and love in Ce qui ne meurt pas. The significance of the title--what never dies--is pity; a pity stronger than love and tantamount to sacrifice. Auraix-Jonchiere maintains that pity and love correspond to the categories of the sacred and the profane respectively. Her analysis shows that the dialectic between these two orders parallels the complex interactions of the heart and soul. Ultimately love, which belongs to the realm of the profane according to the author, is represented as annihilation or nothingness in Barbey's text. Auraix-Jonchiere alludes to Roger Caillois's conceptualization of the profane in which the profane degrades or negates any fulfillment or plenitude by which it is defined. Allan's sentiments, then, toward Yseult at the end of the novel are transformed from passion to feelings of pious pity and veneration and suggest an adoration of nothingness itself.

Marie-Francoise Melmoux-Montaubin's essay focuses on the different discourses in Barbey's literature and criticism. She points out that for Barbey the process of literary or fictional writing is a quest for the sacred, whereas his criticism is the adaptation of a literary ideal within the field of journalism. Barbey saw the world of journalism and criticism as a sign of the democratization and therefore decline of culture--an inferior genre that could not capture the mythic elements of literature. Melmoux-Montaubin maintains that the Catholic dogmatism in Barbey's articles opposes the pervasive spiritualism he encountered in contemporary works and functions to replace or even parody the role of the sacred that is essential to his literary production.

Part II, Melange features an article by Jean-Marie Samocki on ennui, fatigue and altered states of consciousness in Barbey's novels. Samocki juxtaposes Barbey's poetics of ennui with Pascale's meditations on the quest for happiness to contrast Pascale's notion of man as a roseau pensant and the nineteenth-century tendency to separate mind from body, which alienated the individual from his own thoughts, functions, and faculties. The allusions to ennui, or empytness in Barbey's novels correspond to the negativity that Auraix-Jonchiere maintains is sacred. Ultimately ennui is inextricably tied to its avatars and its opposites and becomes the space of transformation and transcendence. At first this piece might seem out-of-place in the thematic context of the collection; however, this section, as its title suggests, is a panoply of diverse sources of information on Aurevillian studies in general. A Carnet Critique contains reviews of seven recent publications on various aspects of Barbey and his work. A brief note detailing recent theses defended on Barbey concludes the volume.

In sum this collection of essays is a valuable contribution to research and scholarship on Barbey's oeuvre. Although Les Diaboliques is the most frequently featured work in critical studies on Barbey, this study analyzes almost all of Barbeys novels (except for Le Chevalier des Touches) and reveals the sacred as an underlying preoccupation in Barbey's fictional universe. This collection will engage scholars of Barbey, readers of nineteenth and twentieth-century literary criticism, as well as those interested in studies of the sacred.

Karen Humphreys, Trinity College
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Author:Humphreys, Karen
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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